At the June 10th annual meeting of the Monroe North Business Association, developer Jack Buchanan of Blue Bridge Ventures pitched a plan to demolish the Western American Mailer and GR Spring industrial facilities for a "mixed-use" development of those properties. Lunch buckets are out and suits & ties are in, as he announced that the Monroe North district is no longer suitable for an industrial park. What a shame.
Monroe North was ideally suited for redevelopment as a city center industrial park in the wake of Autodie's collapse into bankruptcy twelve years ago. In the heart of River City it had all the infrastructure modern manufacturing required including a railroad spur right through the middle of it, yet it had the unique quality of being surrounded by buffers to keep it separate from the residential and business districts around it: To the west was the Grand River, to the east Lookout Hill, to south the I-196 freeway, and to the north Leonard Street.
Monroe North was an opportunity for Grand Rapids to show how a rust-belt city could successfully integrate manufacturing into its very core on the brink of the 21st century. Regardless of the century and the promises of this or that neat idea for the future, a city needs a strong job and tax base to prosper. That is what manufacturing provides.
Instead Grand Rapids city planners continued their blinkered campaign to drive manufacturing out of the city and into the suburban greenspaces surrounding it. They became enamored with the idea that Monroe North should be converted into a mixed-use zone in which offices, apartments, and factories would happily jostle up against one another. Of course, that sounds like precisely the opposite of zoning, which is intended to keep incompatible uses apart from each other. However, even if a mixed-use zone abandons the very rationale for zoning, it does allow city planners to control the plan for the zone.
That control was important, because then-mayor Boss Logie and his business clients had plans for Monroe North as early as 1992 for a new satellite campus for Butterworth Hospital (now Spectrum Health), educational and research facilities along the lines of the Van Andel Institute, and all the latte-sipping amenities and loft apartments that appeal to the non-profit crowd. To that end the City wrangled millions of state and federal tax dollars to prettify the district on the false promise that there was nearly $300 million in private investment ready to be poured into Monroe North. To help justify that figure, the City initially booked the Boardwalk project as a $150 million investment. (That's now down to $20 million and the subject of the current FOIA fight with the City.)
However, Logie's agenda collided with a development plan promoted by Proto-CAM Inc., a manufacturing company (owned by my family) located in the heart of Monroe North. Proto-CAM put together a plan backed by venture capital from Chicago and elsewhere to redevelop the district as an industrial park based upon its Datafacturing® technology which creates good-paying jobs for low- or no-skill core city residents. The plan also called for a charter vocational high school to be located in the district. To kickstart its plan, Proto-CAM filed a request with the City Planning Department in 1996 to convene a hearing before the Grand Rapids Planning Commission to clean up the industrial zoning of Monroe North that had been sliced and diced to accommodate Logie's agenda.
And that's where the industrial resurrection of River City got strangled in the cradle. Proto-CAM's re-zoning application simply disappeared into the bowels of City Hall, exposing the company's utter lack of political clout. Unsurprisingly the venture capital behind the plan then also disappeared because Proto-CAM's owners were unwilling to launch a Datafacturing industrial park elsewhere. However, the conflict did expose the machinations by Boss Logie's camp and so their big vision for Monroe North didn't come to pass either.
Now neither fish nor fowl the redevelopment of Monroe North drifted. Because River City had made itself unattractive to manufacturing, by default Monroe North fell towards commercial and residential redevelopment to the point where, as Buchanan announced, an industrial park is no longer in the cards. But worry not, folks! The politicians, the bureaucrats, and the Van Andel panhandlers will make good on this lost opportunity for Grand Rapids with the bright shiny future of bio-tech -- if we agree to fork over to them a billion bucks or two.