GRAND RAPIDS — First it was Eastown. Now it’s East Fulton.
The Urban Business District (UBD), a relatively new zoning classification, slid a few miles north to the East Fulton district as city commissioners granted the business group’s request for the designation last week.
Eastown was first to adopt the UBD in June 2000, a zone crafted by retired city planner Ken Schilling. He designed the UBD to protect the distinctive traits found in commercial neighborhoods, without putting building owners under an extreme set of regulations.
“We watched the Eastown situation with interest. They were obviously trying to protect the architectural integrity of the Avanti Building and their whole neighborhood. That opened our eyes to what some of the possibilities might be here, both negative and positive,” said Larry Melton, president of the East Fulton Business Association and owner of Triangle Productions at 1041 E. Fulton.
East Fulton found itself in a situation similar to Eastown’s. A rumor had the Wolverine Litho Building, a large structure at the corner of Carlton and Fulton, being eyed for a big box retail development. If true, the building probably would have come tumbling down.
“We wanted to protect that building. So we sort of followed Eastown’s lead in terms of looking at it and asking what is it that we want our business district to be. In looking at that, we decided that the Urban Business District was one way to go because we want to protect the architectural uniqueness and integrity of what we’ve got going,” said Melton.
The UBD offers setbacks, parking, street frontage and signs that are a better fit for the city’s older districts, and it encourages the pedestrian traffic that shop owners crave. The code requires businesses with drive-thrus to locate on a corner lot, and calls for planning commissioners to approve a new use for a site before a building can be torn down.
Melton told the Business Journal that a big reason for the success East Fulton has had over the past few years was due to the charm that its older buildings give the district. A number of those structures have been renovated over that time, and those efforts were handsomely rewarded last November at the Neighborhood Business Awards.
Two businesses in the district picked up first place awards. Bluedoor Antiques at 946 E. Fulton won for best window display and Bazzani Associates at 940 E. Fulton took the top prize for best exterior renovation.
Achievement awards for interior renovation went to the Heart Yoga Center, 940 E. Fulton, and the United Methodist Center at 11 Fuller NE. Amaryllis, also at 940 E. Fulton, received one for its window display.
“Since I’ve come into the neighborhood, which was four years ago, we seem to win a couple of awards each year. I think if you walk through the business district you’ll see where improvements have been made,” said Melton.
“The hope in adopting the urban business district zoning is to continue that trend so that when improvements are made these are done with the whole business district in mind, and not just one business,” he added.
Anne Marie Bessette, a development specialist with the Neighborhood Business Specialist Program, worked with the district and city planner Jim Pare on the UBD request. The new zoning covers about 17 acres and runs along Fulton from Dwight to Carlton avenues.
But it was tough going for businesses in the district for part of last year when Fulton was torn up for reconstruction from Union to Diamond. Once the work was done, however, traffic picked up and business has been solid ever since.
“It’s going gangbusters,” said Ben Perrin, owner of MercuryHead Gallery at 962 E. Fulton. “Grand Rapids is starving for our kind of venues. They’re sick of 28th Street and Alpine Avenue. They want small shops or storefronts on the street. It’s almost like a strip mall, but much more unique.
“We were dead during it, pret’ near,” Perrin said of last year’s street work. “But it’s a nice enhancement. They gave us the trees we asked for. We got the brick edging.”
The second phase of the street reconstruction is set to start soon. This time the city will redo Fulton from Diamond to Fuller.
“We know some people will take alternate routes, but we will be totally accessible for any business we have established,” said Perrin, who has been in East Fulton for four years.
Perrin said the district is earning an “artsy” reputation. He joked that East Fulton has everything that nobody needs. Or maybe that’s everything everybody just hasn’t realized they need, yet. Perrin compared the district’s retail to the fine wine industry —like connoisseurs, most of their customers have acquired a taste for what is offered.
“The customers rave about it and keep coming back. So we’re doing something right,” he said. “I keep going and I’ve got plenty of reasons to stay here. There are people coming around all the time who want to know what’s for sale, what’s for lease.”
East Fulton is one of the city’s more unique business districts in that it has two retail centers, which are broken up by blocks of houses, along with two neighborhood associations that surround it. Usually when commercial areas are separated and there are two residential groups to contend with, it’s difficult to reach a consensus on just about anything.
But that’s not the case in East Fulton, where Melton said everyone has worked for the betterment of the district — including the UBD designation.
“We seem to work together pretty well, and we’re hopeful that we can continue that trend,” he said. “It’s been very positive the last few years.”