GRAND RAPIDS — Less than a decade ago, the Creston Neighborhood was positioned to be “that next hot spot” in the city of Grand Rapids. A developer planned two mixed-use housing projects in the neighborhood’s business district, spurring other businesses to plan for expansion or relocating to the neighborhood.
By the end of 2018, though, the housing developer’s parent company — 616 Lofts LLC — had filed for bankruptcy. Several other investments never materialized. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, small business owners and investors in the north-side Grand Rapids community wondered if Creston’s fate had been sealed.
“It really hurt the neighborhood when (the 616 Lofts projects) fell through,” said Gregg Hampshire, executive director of the Creston Neighborhood Association. “Then the pandemic throttled everything.”
However, a new set of developers has emerged over the past year to pick up where 616 Lofts left off. The two, separate plans call for a combined 182 new housing units with commercial components at the same locations as the failed projects. Other investors are eyeing major former industrial sites nearby for housing projects. Additional dining options are available.
Business owners in the district are once again hopeful of potentially several large-scale residential developments gaining momentum in their community.
“There is a lot of optimism with these two new projects,” Hampshire said.
The Creston Neighborhood spans a large northeast section of the city north of Leonard Street NE to just north of I-96, and is bordered on the west by the Grand River and Riverside Park. The neighborhood’s business district runs northward along Plainfield Avenue NE from Leonard.
The two recently proposed projects include Southeast Michigan-based Talbot Development LLC’s plans for the 72-unit mixed-use Hillcrest Apartments project at 220 Quimby St. NE, across from Creston Brewery. The city on Dec. 8 approved a key parking waiver that cuts the number of required parking spaces in half. Developer Ryan Talbot, who has said he is “really bullish on the Great Lakes region for real estate development,” had aimed to start construction this spring.
To the south along Plainfield Avenue, First Companies Inc. is developing a 110-unit mixed-use project near the Grove Street intersection, where the city approved a 15-year Neighborhood Enterprise Zone tax exemption on Dec. 6.
Starting in 2014, 616 Lofts planned to construct separate mixed-use developments on these same two properties. With new plans in motion to add 182 apartment units between the two projects along Plainfield, Creston community leaders and business owners are hoping the developments spur more foot traffic, additional investments including more retail and a more accessible grocery store, as well as a more pedestrian-friendly business district.
‘Next hot spot’
Hampshire was living on the city’s west side at the time, but he remembers when 616 Lofts’ plans were positioning Creston to be “that next hot spot” in Grand Rapids.
The earlier excitement around Creston did help spur projects such as Creston Brewery and Creston Market, to name a few. But Hampshire and several other community leaders say that Creston has been waiting for a moment similar to what the west side went through after New Holland Brewing opened on Bridge Street, which Rockford Construction Co. Inc. followed in 2018 with the 116-unit apartment building above Meijer Inc.’s Bridge Street Market. Those projects helped to kick off a wave of additional housing, retail and restaurants along the Bridge Street corridor. Rockford Construction, for example, also plans a 245-unit apartment project just north of Bridge Street.
Brett Alward’s Creston restaurant and bar, Rezervoir Lounge, located at 1418 Plainfield Ave. NE, shut down temporarily during the pandemic, but “survived it,” he said. Customers have been returning in larger numbers again, and the restaurant is nearly back to being fully staffed. But it could still take Alward’s business three to five years to fully recover financially because of the debt he had to take on to save his business.
Despite Alward’s concerns about the Hillcrest Apartments parking waiver, he generally sees additional housing in the neighborhood as a benefit.
“Ultimately, it’s good to have smaller, walkable neighborhoods with a lot of variety,” Alward said. “I’d like to see opportunities and rent levels so that local people can come in and actually operate a business.”
The housing density planned with the new developments will be a driver for more businesses to open in Creston, said Duane Culver, president of the Creston Business Association. Culver is also the president of the Creston-based Culver CPA Group P.C.
“We’ve been desiring more foot traffic in our business district and something to help give our district a little more life,” Culver said. “Getting more retail stores in the district has been really hard. We tend to sometimes use the first floors for office space because there isn’t enough retail traffic here.”
Culver and Alward each said a more centrally located grocery store with fresh produce is a big need in the neighborhood. Kingma’s Market is not walkable unless you live farther north, Hampshire said.
“High density housing will make that possible, it looks more appealing for a grocer,” Hampshire said.
‘Sense of place,’ additional plans
Rachel Lee opened River North Public House restaurant, located at 2115 Plainfield Ave. NE, in 2019. At the time, several other restaurants sought to open near hers, but the pandemic ended some of those plans, she said. Other recently opened nearby restaurants include Cafe Mamo and Gaia House Cafe, which relocated from East Hills after a hiatus.
Lee welcomes the idea of more restaurants and retailers opening near River North to create more of a “sense of place” to draw more customers, she said.
“I’m excited with these projects happening and more people living on the (main corridor) and what that will mean for businesses,” Lee said. “We need foot traffic, but we also need to create a pedestrian, people-first, walkable community. I’m not sure which comes first, but we need both.”
The two mixed-use projects have created some momentum, and the neighborhood association also has been hearing from more developers recently, Hampshire said. That includes a major, long-planned redevelopment of a former industrial building that could connect the Creston Business District to the river.
Grand Rapids- and Oak Brook, Ill.-based Franklin Partners LLC is in the process of revisiting plans for vacant property the firm has owned since 2015 at 1340 North Monroe Ave. NW, between the business district and the Grand River. Several different developers in the past have pursued unsuccessful plans to redevelop the massive former Display Pack Inc. building. Franklin Partners now plans to serve as the developer for the property, said Don Shoemaker, a principal with Franklin Partners.
“We’re excited,” Shoemaker said. “It’s a great connection with the river redevelopment and what’s going on in the Creston Neighborhood. We went back to the drawing board and came up with new plans, and think it’s a really attractive project.”
Shoemaker did not disclose details of the plan, but he said it will be a residential project.
“We bought it without exactly knowing what it would become, but we really liked the location,” Shoemaker said. “We’ll be taking a big, empty industrial building and bringing new life and people to the neighborhood.”