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Downtown dwellers
Those who live in downtown Grand Rapids tick off all the things they love — walking to restaurants and bars, cultural institutions,
concerts, performing arts, the library, the river — and a few not so good things.
By Ann Byle
Photography by Michael Buck

Restaurants. Entertain­ment. Mu­­seums. Li­­brary. Workplaces. Mar­kets. Festivals.

All these amenities and more are what draw the new breed of downtown dwellers to the urban core of Grand Rapids. What had become a desolate cityscape thanks to suburban sprawl has transformed once again into a vibrant patchwork of people, activities and businesses that bring new life to downtown.

“We weren’t leaving something when we moved downtown; we were choosing something else,” said Carol Lautenbach. “We’re a small part of the Renaissance going on downtown, and that is very satisfying.”

Carol and Bob Lautenbach moved into The Fitzgerald about five years ago after watching the renovation of the former YMCA on Library Street NE. They bought a condo there six years ago but rented it out for a year while planning to sell their 4,000-square-foot home on 12 acres in Cascade Township. The home didn’t sell until late last year, but the Lautenbachs couldn’t wait to move into their 1,300-square-foot condo.

“We were active in our downtown church and in the cultural institutions downtown,” said Carol, assistant superintendent at Godfrey-Lee Public Schools. “We wanted to spend time as part of the community we enjoy and contribute to, instead of on the road driving to get there.”

Now they walk to church, restaurants and cultural events. They shop downtown; they run into their new neighbors at the events and places they visit.

“We found a place where we could minimize time on the road so we could spend that time on things we’re committed to, but also live a healthier lifestyle by walking and investing in our local businesses and cultural resources,” she said.

Walkability is one of most appealing aspects of living in Grand Rapids’ urban core. Just ask Eddie Tadlock, who walks about six miles a day: to work as assistant general manager for DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena, and to downtown events that take place almost nightly.

If distance or weather is an issue, he uses The Rapid bus system’s Silverline and Dash services, or Uber.

“Most of the things I do in terms of playing — theater, museums, restaurants, live music — are downtown. Pretty much everything I need is here,” said Tadlock, who also lives at The Fitzgerald.

 

Eddie Tadlock, who writes food blog Culture Kitchen on Facebook, shops in Downtown Market.

He and other downtown dwellers admit an expanded grocery store might be in order, but they are quick to add that the inconvenience of having to drive to a Meijer store or Costco or to specialty stores for home goods or certain food items is offset by the availability of most foods at Downtown Market and Fulton Street Farmers Market and stores such as Grand Central Market and Martha’s Vineyard.

“I like to cook, so I get whatever is fresh and available at the markets,” said Tadlock, who also writes the food blog Culture Kitchen on Facebook and a culture blog at kulturevulture.wordpress.com.

“It always amazes me when people say there isn’t anything to do downtown. There is something to do every night,” said Tadlock. “I’m out and about sometimes seven nights a week.”

For Caitlin Barrow, moving into downtown Grand Rapids a year ago wasn’t a big deal after living in downtown Chicago. She moved into a one-bedroom apartment at 38 Commerce Ave. SW, eager to meet other young professionals and take advantage of the entertainment scene.

“I love exploring new restaurants and really like the Downtown Market. I saw a lot of ArtPrize and have been to concerts and musicals. All of this is within walking distance so I don’t have to worry about parking,” said Barrow, who is a merchandise planner at Meijer Inc.

“I came here not knowing anyone. Living downtown has helped me create a network and group of friends that maybe wouldn’t be as strong or have been as easy if I had lived in the suburbs,” she said. “Now I can just walk out my door and pop in for an hour at a bar or restaurant.”

She admits finding an apartment in her price range was difficult. Demand is high for certain income demographics — between high-end living spaces and subsidized housing.

Kelly McGrail, director of marketing for Experience Grand Rapids, the local convention and visitors bureau, is actively searching for an affordable condo in the urban core. She lives in Heritage Hill but wants to be closer still to the amenities she loves. Her parents recently moved from Metro Detroit to downtown Grand Rapids, where they purchased a condo. “They took the city by storm,” she said.

“I’m actively searching, but I’m not finding what I’m looking for. They are building a lot of apartments and I’m so glad about that, but I’m looking to buy,” said McGrail.

Dr. Matthew Clark had no trouble renting out the condo he owns at Union Square on Broadway NW. He found renters in a day and a half, which points to the desirability of living downtown and the need for more affordable housing.

Clark lives at 205 S. Division Ave. and works at the Gay Christian Therapy Center on Ottawa Avenue. He owns a car, but walks or uses Uber to attend downtown events and plans meetings at downtown coffee shops. He laughs when visitors from Ada or Rockford worry about where to park. “We have parking garages and ramps around every corner,” he said.


Apartment dweller Caitlin Barrow, left, meets up with friends Renae Barry, Yunna Wu and Heather Huttema. She moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago and was eager to meet other young professionals and take advantage of the entertainment scene.

Barrow, like many who live downtown, has a car she uses to drive to work — at Meijer headquarters in Walker. She pays for a reserved parking spot in the city ramp that backs up to her building, allowing her to park on the same floor on which she lives and avoid weather issues and lack of parking spaces when events take place at nearby Van Andel Arena.

“Weather is the key thing for me using the ramp,” she said. “I’ve had friends visit who have parked on the street and nothing has happened, but I don’t want to leave my car on the street all the time.”

Parking is one thing that often comes up when folks consider living downtown. Eddie Tadlock owns a car and the Lautenbachs own two, all of which are parked in The Fitzgerald garage that came with their condos.

“They were very wise to include parking when they developed this property,” said Carol Lautenbach. “Parking is a hard amenity to give up.”

When Bart and Kathy Steindler moved into the People’s Building, 60 Monroe Center, from their rural home in Texas Township near Kalamazoo, they needed to keep both of their cars so they opted to pay a monthly fee to park them in a city ramp with an entrance off Ionia Avenue.

“We have guaranteed spaces that are covered, and we’re willing to pay for that,” said Kathy, who works at Amway Corp. in Ada on the technical services team. “Some in our building have chosen other ramps or to park on the side streets. But on the weekends, we park the car and walk everywhere.”

The Steindlers frequent the Main Branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library and Fulton Street Farmers Market, attend events at Van Andel Arena or DeVos Performance Hall, and are members at Grand Rapids Art Museum.

The couple knew a move to Grand Rapids was imminent thanks to their job situations, so they began exploring the city via Grand Rapids Magazine. They learned of the conversion of the People’s Building into livable space and contacted the developer.

They were able to custom design their 2,400-square-foot condo, purchasing what had been planned as two living spaces and making it into one. Windows on one side catch the sunrise and others catch the sunset. They can look north and see the Medical Mile skyscape.

“I effuse so much about how much I love downtown that people ask if I’m a member of the Chamber of Commerce,” said Steindler. “It’s great to live in a city that offers such a vast variety of forms of entertainment.”

She mentions another fear potential downtown dwellers express: panhandlers and similar urban worries.

“When we first moved here, we felt like we got panhandled a lot,” said Steindler. “But we began seeing familiar faces, and I’d say, ‘I’m a neighbor and I live downtown too,’ and they would leave us alone.”

Carol Lautenbach points out that just saying no is often enough to stop panhandlers. “Grand Rapids has a very big safety net,” she said.

“It’s good to remember that people who live in the Heartside neighborhood have been there a long time before the downtown dwellers came. This has been a neighborhood for a long time, but we’re just discovering it.”

 

Visitors at Grand Rapids Art Museum check out
“Elephant Whirlpool” by Adonna Khare.

She also points to the community spirit that comes when those who live and work downtown come together. “Those who have nothing can help us remember that it doesn’t take a lot to make us happy,” Lautenbach said.

Clark admits panhandlers can be annoying but he finds the “professionals” — those who panhandle all day, every day — along Monroe Center can be a real problem when they won’t take no for an answer. Another issue is pedestrians who don’t use crosswalks, don’t pay attention to traffic lights and don’t seem bothered if cars nearly hit them.

But Clark also praises the downtown, calling it a “very LGBT-affirming community, a very art-affirming community.” Art galleries, the UICA, the MVP Sports Club at 33 Fountain St., restaurants, the library — all make Grand Rapids a great place to live, he says.

There is also the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s OutPro, a professional group for LGBT people and their allies.

“I heard recently that we’re the only city in the country to have that group,” said Clark.

He doesn’t worry about living downtown. “I feel safe, even walking on Division Avenue,” said Clark. “I have never not felt safe.”

For Eddie Tadlock, downtown living requires “a little grit.” Grand Rapids has all the things common to any city: graffiti, skateboarders in the parking ramps or on the sidewalks, panhandlers.


Matthew Clark, who lives and works downtown, walks his dog along
Monroe Center.

“I encourage people to get out of their comfort zones. Walk down the street during day, then come back at night. I see the same four guys out on the street, and we get to know each other. We’re on a first-name basis now,” he said.

“The city isn’t going to be pristine, but that’s part of every city. For me it’s all relative: If you’ve lived in Seattle or Boston, Grand Rapids is pretty benign. And the cost of living is a fraction of other cities.”

Caitlin Barrow agrees. “As long as you keep yourself out of harm’s way, you’re fine. That’s the story of any city. I feel Grand Rapids is very safe.”

The benefits can be huge for those who choose downtown living.

“It’s a vertical neighborhood instead of the horizontal neighborhoods in the suburbs,” said Lautenbach. “We see our neighbors every day and connect with them. We get to know them and they share their lives with us and us with them.”

“I’ve seen downtown Grand Rapids transform in a positive way over the six years I’ve been here,” said Tadlock.

“Grand Rapids is clean, safe, the people are nice, it’s easy to get around, and the first-tier amenities in the urban core are pretty amazing. And we have a wonderful river running through the center of town and great bike paths. Friends from all over the country read my blog and say, ‘All that is happening in Grand Rapids?’”

Yes, it is. GR

 
   
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