Monday, September 23, 2013

Arise Grand Rapids: The Revitalization of Downtown

Slowly but surely--even rapidly in some cases--Grand Rapids is transforming. Our old buildings, vacant for some time, are finding new owners with an eye for the future and tenants that are cut from the same cloth. Take the old Harris building for example: Run down for some time after its construction more than 100 years ago, I remember being intrigued by it a handful of times when I was traveling along Division Avenue. I had tried to pull open the door to see if it was unlocked (I do this pretty regularly to buildings that catch my attention) but, as usual, I had no luck. It was a few months later that I heard about something called #saturdaze. Basically, the idea behind this was to host a party. I don't know if it was the first time #saturdaze did this, but they somehow managed to land access to the Harris building. I marked my mental calendar, impatiently awaiting the first time I would get to enter this old gem.

Ah, the Harris building | Photo courtesy of
The party was killer. So was the party after that. There may have been a third and a fourth fiesta after these, but soon the streak would end and the building would get a new owner. It's safe to say that I was sad to see the venue go as it kind of made these parties what they were: grungy yet mystical. Case in point: My friends and I would wake up the next morning with the blackest of boogers, having danced in a space that wasn't put to use for years. We soon realized it was all of the dust that had been kicked up; those little particles had plastered themselves to the insides of our nostrils while the feet of strangers shuffled around us--kind of disgusting but kind of alluring, right? Though tragic, the death of the relationship between #saturdaze and the Harris building was beautiful because it brought a renewed attention to the Harris building and now, with its new owner, it has been revitalized. A locally-owned organic pasta company called The Local Epicurean moved from its Eastown location into the first floor of the building as soon as it could--and other retailers are expected. Future plans include residential lofts, restaurants, community event space (which means #saturdaze might be back!), and work studios. For the next handful of weeks, the building is even an ArtPrize venue (I guess this shouldn't be too surprising). If everything goes as planned, the Harris building could become a model for the restoration of other buildings in the city.

Another building that is getting a lot of attention is the old Grand Rapids Public Museum. After opening in 1940, the museum moved to its new location in 1994. The building went mostly unused--to the public, anyways--for 16 years. It was then that a nonprofit arts group known as SiTE:LAB began collaborating with the museum to make use of it as a space for ArtPrize. Many citizens enjoyed what SiTE:LAB did and began wondering what the space could be used for the rest of the year, thinking that there had to be something that could occupy the 30,000-square-foot spot for more than just three weeks out of the year. Through these notions, a competition called 54 Jeff was conceived and dozens of entries were submitted for the building's revival. A board of expert jurors, focused mostly on art and architecture, are expected to reveal the competition's winning idea later this month and I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't excited.

Anyone traveling on the S-Curve on any given day will see cranes, scaffolding, and insulation going up on buildings like wrapping paper.  Clearly there are big plans for Grand Rapids' old formerly industrial parts.  Cleaning and refurbishing them is something all of us can be happy about.