An overhead view of the multiple publicly and privately owned parcels in Grand Rapids where a sewer is being removed to help pave the way for development, including for a 14,000-seat amphitheater. An overhead view of the multiple publicly and privately owned parcels in Grand Rapids where a sewer is being removed to help pave the way for development, including for a 14,000-seat amphitheater. COURTESY GRAPHIC

Plans in motion for Grand Rapids waterfront amphitheater

BY Sunday, November 22, 2020 07:15pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Earlier this month, the Grand Rapids City Commission and the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention/Arena Authority approved a memorandum of understanding that could result in a new 14,000-seat waterfront amphitheater downtown.

The target property is 201 Market Ave. SW, just southwest of US-131 at the S-curve along the Grand River. Because of massive sewer infrastructure that’s prevented previous developments on the site, the new public-private partnership is complex and involves several moving parts.

The first is an $18.6 million project to relocate a trunk sewer and “create a large canvas for development,” engineers say. 

Here’s the process that’s been set in motion:

What entities are involved?

The city of Grand Rapids owns about 15.8 acres along Market Avenue and uses it for public works operations. The Convention/Arena Authority is considering buying most of the city’s property to develop an amphitheater. Amway Hotel Corp. and 63 Market Avenue Holdings LLC — which is registered to RDV Corp., the DeVos family office — own property on the west side of Market Avenue, just north of US-131. The properties include the former Charley’s Crab restaurant and a surface parking lot.

AHC President Rick Winn said the company does “not have development plans at this time” for the property.

Under the agreement approved this month, the four entities would split the costs of the $18.6 million sewer project. The city’s share would be $6.25 million (33.55 percent), the CAA would contribute $5 million (26.83 percent), and the two private entities would pay $7.38 million (39.62 percent).

The CAA’s $5 million share is covered by a 2018 Michigan Economic Development Corp. grant the authority received for an amphitheater project. The grant was originally for two years, but officials negotiated a one-year extension to use the funds.

Additionally, the agreement outlines the sale of about two-thirds of the city’s property to the CAA for redevelopment. 

Progressive AE Inc. and Fishbeck Inc. are the engineers on the sewer relocation project. The Kent County Road Commission owns property on the north side of the city where Grand Rapids officials are considering moving operations from Market Avenue.

When would redevelopment take place?

A timeline is set for the sewer relocation, but not the amphitheater. The city and CAA are in active negotiations over the property sale and a written option agreement is expected by Dec. 31. 

The CAA has agreed to contribute $5 million to relocate the sewer, but the money would be returned and covered by the city if the CAA decides to not buy the land to build the venue. 

Eliminating risk for the CAA was an important part of the deal, said Rich MacKeigan, regional general manager of DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena. The CAA is still in conversations with the city about whether it will move forward with purchasing the land, MacKeigan said. 

“This is really the first stage of many the CAA will have to go through before putting a shovel in the ground,” MacKeigan said. 

MacKeigan said it’s also too early to estimate an amphitheater’s cost because the design phase has not started, which will be determined by the specific location. 

Meanwhile, the city anticipates soliciting bids for the first phase of the sewer relocation project in December and the second phase in April 2021. Construction on the two phases would start in March and May 2021, respectively, and be completed by March 2022.

Why has infrastructure hindered development, and what’s happening with it?

The 11.5-foot by 13-foot sewer needs to be relocated to allow for redevelopment. The city “welcomes” the possibility of an amphitheater on the property, but the agreement is positive regardless of whether the venue materializes, said Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong.

“By moving the sewer from the site, we’ll have a marketable site and will have moved a significant hurdle out of the way,” DeLong said. 

The public-private partnership will “pay dividends” in the future, he added. 

“The partnership that has assembled here is based on a model that has worked very well in our community over the past 40 years now and has led to significant investments in our community that have been very meaningful like the Van Andel Arena, Downtown Market and DeVos Convention Center,” DeLong said. “This partnership has that same or more potential.”

The existing sewer runs between Market Avenue and the Grand River under both public and private properties would be replaced by a 9-foot wide circular pipe.

“By removing the pipe off the property and putting it in the Market Avenue right of way, it will really create a large canvas for development,” said Progressive AE President and CEO Brad Thomas. “Relocating the sewer will remove the major impediment for development.”

This will be the second time part of the sewer line has been relocated for development, Thomas said. When the DeVos Center was developed, a similar process of relocating the trunk sewer underneath the property had to be carried out before construction.

“We already moved a significant piece of this same sewer line, this is almost a continuation of that,” Thomas said.

The sewer line extends south down Market Avenue to the wastewater treatment plant, running under smaller riverfront properties south of Wealthy Street, DeLong said. There are no plans for any more of the sewer line to be relocated. The remaining vacant parcels the sewer line runs beneath are smaller than the 201 Market site and would likely be harder to develop, he said. 

What does this mean for city operations at 201 Market?

The city is considering moving its services at the Market Avenue properties to the Kent County Road Commission’s Central Complex at 1500 Scribner Ave. NW, which the city has under option. 

“Everything that is on the 201 Market site that the city operates will move to make way for the redevelopment of that corridor,” DeLong said. 

The timing of this will also be determined by the Kent County Road Commission’s ability to relocate to its new location.

“Once we give them the final OK, they will proceed with their development of their new site which will eventually make the site we’re going to available,” DeLong said. “There are lots of contingent things here, we just want to make sure we get everything lined up.”

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