Vacant buildings in Monroe North dwindling


616 Development is renovating the building at 820 Monroe Ave. NW. The top three floors are reserved for residential while the ground floor will feature retail. Courtesy Integrated Architecture

Kevin Farhat, owner of The Garage Bar & Grill in the 800 block of Ottawa Avenue NW, said he predicts two years from now the vacant buildings scattered throughout the Monroe North business district will no longer be empty.

That’s because retail, restaurants and residential offerings are increasing rapidly in the once-industrial hub, creating a true neighborhood on the city’s north side and bringing many of the area’s amenities to light, attracting even more development.

Plans for enhancing the Grand River also are creating promise for the Monroe North neighborhood as a downtown destination.

“People are going to look at this street and say, ‘Yeah, it’s very cool,” Farhat said. “There are a few vacant buildings, but those are just opportunities.”

Farhat is one of the most recent business owners to take a chance on Monroe North, opening his restaurant there last October in the former Teazer’s location. He said he was attracted to the area’s industrial aesthetic and spurred on by the success he saw happening with the SpeakEZ Lounge on Monroe and Trowbridge, which opened in the area three years ago, replacing Cambridge House.

“You see the success Eric (Albertson) has had and the stuff he has done — that was part of the reason we looked at this area,” Farhat said.

He said that was reason enough to convince him of the area’s promise, and the gamble has paid off. “We’ve exceeded our expectations,” he said.

Rather than being fearful of competition, Farhat said he is excited to see more restaurants join the neighborhood.

“I think competition is good,” he said. He said more restaurants would mean more people are likely to visit the area, and that could drive more residential development.

In fact, the top floor of The Garage Bar & Grill is home to four newly remodeled one-bedroom apartment units that recently went on the rental market.

Just around the corner from Farhat’s establishment, at 820 Monroe Ave., 616 Lofts is adding 85 apartments to the neighborhood. Studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments will be move-in ready beginning in October, when the fourth floor will open, followed by the third floor in November and the second floor by the end of the year, according to 616 officials.

The first floor is reserved for retail.

Caitlin Harvey, director of community for 616 Lofts, said 616 hopes to begin announcing the names of the retailers in the next couple of months that will occupy the first floor.

“M Retail is the brokerage company making those connections for us,” she said. “We will hopefully have some confirmed news on what businesses will be in there in the next few weeks.”

The project is the biggest to date for 616 Lofts, which also has apartment buildings in downtown, Heartside and Heritage Hill, each with 20 to 25 units.

The company set its sights on the Monroe North area thanks to the attention the neighborhood has been getting from the GRForward planning process.

“We were very excited about all of the plans the city and GRForward are doing to provide access from downtown up north along the river,” Harvey said. “We’d been looking at some buildings over there and felt really good about the direction of where that neighborhood was moving.”

Highlights of the area that particularly impressed 616 include its proximity and “connectedness” to downtown, and the many green spaces that create a relaxing atmosphere.

“We felt it was a location that would be really well received and people would be excited about,” she said.

Looking at the neighborhood now, it’s hard to believe at one time the neighborhood had no residential units.

Howard Hansen, former owner of Anderson Metal Services and former president of the Monroe North Business Association, said when he relocated his business to Monroe North, it was almost exclusively an industrial corridor.

“Then Brass Works came along … (and) Landmark Lofts, Monroe Terrace, the Boardwalk, Icon on Bond, and now 616 Development,” he said.

Hansen said the revitalization of Monroe North began in the early 2000s, but then stalled due to the economic downturn.

“I believe a lot of this is due to pent-up demand and Monroe North being such an idyllic location for so many of these developments,” he said. “It’s a street of parks and sits alongside the river. I look at it as the contemplative area of the city. It’s a place where you go at noon and sit in the park and have lunch or meet friends and have quiet conversations.”

Hansen noted as residential development has surged, the neighborhood is doing a good job of melding the new with the industrial businesses that remain, and he expects residential, industrial and retail will be able to coexist in the future.

“We can’t forget our industrial neighbors,” he said.

Hansen mentioned some other projects on the horizon for the area, starting with the expansion of Canal Street Park all the way to Leonard Street, which is included in the Downtown Development Authority’s budget for 2016, and the eventual reconstruction of Ottawa Avenue, planned for a little further down the road.

“We are looking at a lot of different plans — especially tax-increment financing — to help get that project underway,” he said. “That is going to be a complete rebuild of that street, and it will be expensive.”

Hansen noted the city is focused right now on its Vital Streets plan, which prioritizes fixing streets in better standing than Ottawa Avenue.

“I’m also on the Vital Streets Task Force, and the plan right now is one of asset management, where we are taking the roads that need attention but aren’t too bad and we are reclaiming them before they get bad because then you go into reconstruction, which is 14 times as expensive, and it’s a losing battle if you allow roads to get to that condition.”

Still, he said, Ottawa Avenue is on the group’s radar, and commitments to patch potholes will help in the meantime.

Bond Street is also slated for work, Hansen said. Right now, it is primarily trucks that utilize the road to reach industrial tenants.

“What we want to do is make it the best of both worlds — not only a service avenue, but also somewhat of a promenade,” he said, noting the 616 Lofts project will help enhance that street, as well.

Other projects taking shape in Monroe North include construction of Gray Skies Distillery, which is underway at 700 Ottawa Ave. NW, and plans to bring a hotel to Monroe Avenue NW. There are also a slew of auto shops that have called the area home for years that continue to do well, and industrial businesses Gill Industries — formerly Grand Rapids Spring & Stamping — and Autodie have remained in the area.

Hansen agrees the remaining vacant buildings in Monroe North will soon thrive once again.

“Monroe North has a lot to offer in the world of development in terms of sites and amenities,” he said. “I think we are going to see unprecedented growth this time around.”

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