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Developing the West Side

Founding partner of Rockford Construction Company Mike VanGessel talks about his roots on the West Side and his vision for community engagement and development in his native neighborhood.
Rockford Construction's new headquarters at 601 1st St. NW

Rockford Construction's new headquarters at 601 1st St. NW /Courtesy of Bill Lindhout Photography

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Interior view of Rockford Construction's new headquarters on the west side

Interior view of Rockford Construction's new headquarters on the west side /Courtesy of Bill Lindhout Photography

Refurbished ash wood from dead trees infected with the emerald ash borer

Refurbished ash wood from dead trees infected with the emerald ash borer /Courtesy of Bill Lindhout Photography

When Rockford Construction moved into our new offices last month, the headlines were about economic redevelopment – how we were turning a once-blighted factory on the West Side into a catalyst for growth in a potentially dynamic neighborhood. Although our move to the West Side was a reflection of our belief that urban redevelopment and investment is essential to the future of Grand Rapids, the full story has a much broader scope.

Over the years, Rockford has been involved in a number of redevelopment projects in Grand Rapids, from Grid70, MoDiv and the Steketee’s Building on Monroe Center to the Heartside Neighborhood. In my mind, the next logical step for the company and our community is to connect more neighborhoods to the urban core. This will take time and strategic thought, but our new office represents an effort to extend the energy, vibrancy, youth and talent of Grand Rapids to surrounding neighborhoods.

Watching the recent growth of both the Medical Mile and GVSU’s downtown campus, the West Side of Grand Rapids began to look like the next natural place for revitalization, even though there are challenges in creating strong connections. For example, there are only a few blocks separating the West Side from the center of town, but the perception of the Grand River and US-131 as dividers can make that short distance feel like a chasm.

I was also very conscious of the connotations that came with our move to the West Side. I heard some skepticism from friends and colleagues when they heard we purchased the old Miller Products property at 601 First Street NW.

But I grew up on the West Side near Harrison Park, so I have a feeling for the spirit of the place. I’ve seen firsthand the ebbs and flows of growth and stagnation that have been part of the neighborhood’s history. I am also keenly aware of the long tradition of hard-working families, the great blend of people from diverse backgrounds and the strong sense of community you still find here. I always felt it had a special character – a soul that set it apart.

In practical terms, it also has great walkability, accessibility to public transit and a solid residential base mixing rentals with multi-generation family homes – some of the features that make great communities. I realized what always made sense to me on a personal level began to make sense as a business decision.

The neighborhood isn’t a blank slate. There are businesses, nightlife, residential developments and people that will continue to be the foundation of the neighborhood. As West Side development continues, I see the neighborhood drawing on its diverse nature and current assets to retain much of what makes it unique, while allowing room for growth in new directions.

Rockford has purchased several properties and this month will begin to build an 18-unit housing development at 600 Douglas Avenue NW. This market-rate housing exemplifies how we’re trying to enhance an already vibrant community, meet the need for quality housing and be respectful of the neighborhood and the urban environment.

But we haven’t released a comprehensive plan for the West Side. We want to engage the entire neighborhood in this discussion, which takes time. From residents to business groups and neighborhood associations, we want everyone to have a voice. Any changes to the area need to be authentic – stemming from the people that live and work here, their needs and sensitivity to all that is great about the West Side.

Fundamentally, inclusivity is a concept at the root of placemaking and development. And in our role as both a construction and development company, we’ve learned to appreciate the synergies that come from strong collaboration. When you do it right, one plus one can equal much more than two.

For our part, Rockford’s staff have become actively engaged in our new community. We’ve opened our doors as an ArtPrize venue and as a meeting place for local organizations. We’ve become active in neighborhood associations and volunteer at local schools and nonprofits. We walk and bike to local restaurants and businesses. In return, we’ve experienced a truly amazing West Side welcome. We feel like we’ve found a home.

We all know that communities evolve over time in response to the people that live, work and play in them. In our role as developer, and hopefully placemaker, we try to respond to the changing world we live in to create buildings and communities that bring people together and improve their quality of life. We look forward to working with the entire Grand Rapids community to define strategies that create a more cohesive, vibrant urban core, well beyond the area considered “downtown” today.

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