Downtown Parking Aimed At Housing

    GRAND RAPIDS — Downtown has had a Renaissance Zone for seven months in hopes of luring new tenants there, particularly residents to a two-block portion of Monroe Center. Now it has a residential parking policy that should principally benefit those who are lured to live on Monroe Center.

    City commissioners agreed with their counterparts on the Parking Commission and created the city’s first-ever residential parking policy that caters exclusively to downtown residents. The action taken last week reserves spaces for them with a special eye on those who live in the two-block, nearly tax-free zone on Monroe Center, where a number of housing units are on the drawing board.

    “The Renaissance Zone helps sell condos, but it won’t happen without a parking plan in place,” said Jonathan Rooks, owner of Parkland Properties of West Michigan LLC, who plans to renovate part of the Peoples Building at 80 Monroe Center into condominiums.

    Rooks said without the new policy the chance that he could successfully convert the former 14-story office building into condos would diminish dramatically. But that policy, which came from a proposal made by Business Advocate Susan Shannon, Assistant Planning Director Jay Fowler, Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema, and backed by Mayor John Logie, increases the likelihood that Rooks will develop 26 condos in the Peoples.

    “The city has been very good to work with. I believe two of their stated goals, among others, are that they want to see vacant buildings downtown be filled and they want to encourage residential units downtown. So this does both of those things,” said Rooks.

    What the program does is provide 24-hour, long-term reserved parking for residents of formerly vacant downtown office and retail buildings with no on-site parking available. Up to 111 spaces in the new 550-space Monroe Center ramp can be set aside for these tenants either through a 12-month lease or a multiple-year prepaid lease.

    The $12 million Monroe Center ramp is the only facility in which the city can offer this type of reserved residential parking as federal tax laws prevent municipalities from doing that in ramps that are exclusively built with tax-exempt bonds. The city said the reserved spaces in the new ramp, which should open in a few weeks, were paid for by revenue from Parking Services. Parking commissioners approved the concept last month.

    Beside the Peoples, Fowler reported there were four other housing projects planned for downtown. Heartside Manor at Oakes and Commerce SW, the Milner Hotel site at 74 Ionia SW, the Bond Avenue Towers at Bond and Trowbridge NW, and eight smaller buildings in the Ren Zone at 41-61 Monroe Center are the other projects. If all five were completed, downtown would then have another 478 housing units.

    Two other housing projects are currently under construction: the expansion of Secchia Hall on the GVSU campus and renovation of the Donovan Building at 71 South Division. When both are finished 92 new housing units will be added to the downtown market.

    Fowler, who is also executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said there were 1,466 apartments, residence halls, and condominiums downtown at the start of this year. Eight years ago downtown had 1,200 housing units. The 2003 number marks an increase of 22 percent from 1995.

    As far as turning an office building into residences, Rooks told the Business Journal that most of his risk in doing that is in construction and not marketing. He feels the tax savings residents will gain from the zone will help him sell the units. But at the same time, it will cost him more to convert the space into housing than if he created strictly office space.

    “The city wants this to be residential. That was part of the idea of making it a Ren Zone because it’s what I do and it’s really the primary reason I bought that building,” he said.

    “I think I have a small army of buyers that are potentially interested in buying condos there. It makes more sense for me to focus on the demand that is there and the demand for residential is stronger than the demand for office,” added Rooks. “But the challenge is the economic cost of upgrading that space.”

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