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Calvin College plans downtown presence

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Calvin, too, plans downtown presence

Saturday, September 25, 2004

By Jim Harger

The Grand Rapids Press

Calvin College is joining the campus party in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Christian school plans to lease space for its art department in Grand Rapids' Heartside district, a downtown neighborhood where city planners and developers are hoping to foster an urban artists colony.

A renovated building at the southeast corner of Oakes Street and South Division Avenue will house studio space and galleries for several Calvin professors and their students, Calvin President Gaylen Byker said Friday.

"I think it's part of a larger trend at Calvin to be engaged with the community," Byker said. "It benefits us, and it benefits the neighborhood."

Calvin is joining Western Michigan University and Thomas J. Cooley Law School in placing campus facilities in Heartside, a former warehouse district that has become a magnet for trendy nightclubs, loft apartments and offices in recent years.

As part of downtown's growing college scene, Calvin also joins Ferris State University's Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Valley State University, Davenport University and Grand Rapids Community College. Michigan State University, which has an office with classroom space on Lyon Street NW, is considering the Michigan Street Hill district northeast of downtown for its medical school.

Calvin -- whose main campus straddles East Beltline Avenue on Grand Rapids' Southeast Side -- is returning to its roots by expanding into downtown, Byker noted. The college began in 1876 about two blocks away at the corner of Commerce Avenue and Williams Street SW.

Although Calvin's new facility will be located across the street from the Tini Bikini Bar and Grill, Byker said bawdy neighbors won't be a big concern.

"Our students now go into the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C.," Byker said. Calvin students also can be found working and studying in local hospitals and neighborhoods throughout the city, he said.

Calvin's downtown studios and galleries will be in one of a group of four buildings undergoing a $10 million renovation by a for-profit arm of Dwelling Place Inc. Byker said Calvin hopes to begin using the space next fall.

The so-called Martineau project also will feature 23 "live/work" apartments designed for artists who live and work in the same space, said Dwelling Place CEO Dennis Sturtevant.

The development is part of an "Avenue of the Arts" proposal that recently won a $100,000 grant from Gov. Jennifer Granholm's Cool Cities pilot program, aimed at promoting economic development projects that will attract young creative types to Michigan cities.

Sturtevant said the "Avenue of the Arts" proposal generated the highest score in the statewide competition because of its appeal to young artists and its focus on revitalizing the city's urban core.

Calvin will occupy about 10,000 square feet on the ground floor and lower level of the Douglas Brothers Building at 104 and 106 S. Division Ave., Sturtevant said.

Calvin's space will include storefront galleries that will be used for student art exhibits. Another storefront will include a cafe, he said.

"Anytime a college or university makes a major institutional commitment to come into an area like this, it really does enhance the chances of other development to occur," Sturtevant said.

Because the project is being financed through a program that offers federal tax credits, the 23 live/work apartments will be restricted to moderate-income households, Sturtevant said.

"I think it's fantastic," said Mayor George Heartwell, who served as a storefront pastor in the Heartside neighborhood for 14 years.

"I think it bodes very well for us," Heartwell said, noting that more than 5,000 downtown workers already are employed by institutes of higher education.

"I think this is a very bold move by Calvin and will help enormously in what we're trying to do downtown," said Susan Shannon, the city's economic development director.

Thanks to the Cool Cities program, Division Avenue also will get a $2 million facelift next year, Shannon said.

Another component of the Cool Cities project in that area will be the Urban Market, a public-private venture that will focus on fresh, locally distinctive food. The market will include a farmer's market and a local brewery, city officials said.

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