The economic benefits that have surfaced from the Cherry Street Landing district have been readily apparent for a decade, and more gains are expected to emerge this year when the final piece of this amazing and risky brick-and-mortar puzzle is in place.
The economic returns — those already present and those yet to come — that have taken a vacant, rundown portion of downtown and transformed it into a place where people work, play, learn and live have cinched Cherry Street Landing as a Newsmaker of the Year finalist.
In fact, if Cherry Street Landing had never been envisioned it’s highly unlikely that the Downtown Development Authority would have expanded its boundary last year to include more properties that border the development.
The story began roughly 10 years ago when Rockford Construction Co., now part of the larger Rockford Companies, was finishing the renovation of the Arena Station building for a client. The multi-level structure is at 25 Ottawa Ave. SW, directly across from the Van Andel Arena. As the project was winding down, Rockford Construction co-founder and principal John Wheeler was looking out of one of the building’s top-floor windows when the idea for Cherry Street Landing came to him.
“When you stand at the arena and look south, it looks terrible. Quite frankly, there is a tremendous amount of old, dilapidated real estate. So as we started studying growth patterns, we started options on buildings,” he told the Business Journal in March 1998.
Wheeler and his partner, Michael VanGessel, optioned a dozen buildings in a six-block area southeast of the arena. Then they enlisted the real estate firm owned by the Peter Secchia family, SIBSCO LLC, as an equity partner and development advisor.
“I liked the way he was thinking. He was converting worn-down but potentially beautiful buildings into rehabilitation projects. He understood construction. I understood finance. So he showed me the potential of Cherry Street Landing,” said Peter Secchia of Wheeler in 1999.
RDV Corp., owned by the Richard DeVos family, joined Rockford Companies in 2004 as the project’s new equity partner and adviser. Those partnerships have revived over 360,000 square feet of once dead space for offices, retail shops, restaurants, colleges and parking at an investment of more than $50 million.
The money was well spent because almost all of that square footage is occupied. The first tenants were law firm Bleakley, Cypher, Parent, Warren & Quinn and Chervon North America. Then came U.S. Cellular, Western Michigan University, Black Rose Irish Pub, BETA Design, Williams Marketing, Churchills, Moxie, the Thomas Cooley Law School, Pro Care Systems and others.
The first Cherry Hill Landing building, a 40,000-square-footer at 120 Ionia Ave. SW, was completed in 1999. In 2000, 201 Ionia Ave. SW was ready for occupancy. In 2001, it was 200 Ionia. In 2002, 130 Ionia opened. In 2003, 100 Ionia was added to the project and in 2004, it was 70 Ionia.
In 2005, 51 Ionia Ave., 111 Commerce Ave. and 38 Oakes St. all were finished. In 2007, 61 Commerce was ready. In 2008, the city-owned parking ramp at the corner of Cherry Street and Commerce Avenue was completed.
This year, downtown will likely see work on the Landing’s finale get under way. Rockford plans to begin converting the former Heartside Manor at 35 Oakes St. SW into The Forum Apartments. Forty-two studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom market-rate apartments will be built on the top seven floors, with occupancy aimed at college students and those who work in the district. The ground floor will serve the residents and could contain retail, a fitness center and food service.