Stuart Neighborhood

Apartment and commercial development hopes to open by fall in Kalamazoo's Stuart Neighborhood

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Stuart Neighborhood series.
 
Eighteen new apartments and space for a cluster of small businesses should be available for occupancy in the Stuart Neighborhood by fall.
 
Westgate Commons is the name being given to two mixed-use buildings that have been under construction since November at 615 W. Kalamazoo Ave. The $4 million construction project will put back into use a property that was home to Rorick Brothers Auto Body shop. That car repair business closed in 2006.
 
Each of the three-story 12,000-square-foot buildings is to have one handicapped-accessible apartment on its ground level. The balance of space on that level is to be leased to commercial tenants.
 
“We’re kind of hoping for non-restaurant uses,” says William K. Murphy, a partner with and spokesman for the project’s developer and owner, 615 Holdings LLC. “We don’t have room for that. But a coffee shop would be a perfect tenant.”

He says no commercial tenants have signed leases thus far but he envisions the ground-level space being used by professionals, such as an insurance agency, a chiropractor, or attorneys. Murphy is a personal injury lawyer who will relocate into Westgate Commons with two other attorneys from the office space they now share on Church Street in downtown Kalamazoo.

Murphy says he was looking for new office space a few years ago as he helped his clients, the Rorick brothers, try to find a way to sell the 615 W. Kalamazoo property and head into retirement. 

Finding a buyer was difficult, he says, because the property had served as a gasoline station in the 1930s and although underground gasoline tanks had been removed, considerable effort was still needed to eliminate soil contamination. That included the removal of a previously undiscovered automobile oil-collection tank that was beneath the auto body shop building. Murphy estimates the soil remediation work cost about $300,000 in total.

Murphy says he and his partners bought the property and planned its redevelopment anticipating there would be a need for more living spaces as downtown Kalamazoo continues to grow. 

Four apartments (one two-bedroom unit and three one-bedroom units) are to be located on each of two upper floors of each building. Each unit will have one and a half bathrooms. The half-bathroom feature should allow tenants to limit visitors’ access to the bedroom area. One-bedroom units are to lease for about $1,500 per month. The rental price for two-bedroom units will be more but has not yet been set, Murphy says.

“I’m very excited to see the end result,” says Gary Wark, president of the Stuart Neighborhood Association. When neighborhood residents heard plans about the project during a meeting last fall, he says, “I remember those in attendance were very happy to hear of a new development at this location. It looks like things are moving along nicely.”

Asked about redeveloping an unused and contaminated property in a core Kalamazoo neighborhood, Kalamazoo City Planner Christina Anderson, says, “I think it’s always great to have a site that has been underutilized put back into active use.”

City officials say the project is well located on the western fringe of the downtown in the Stuart Neighborhood. And it is in walking distance of the Park Street Market for grocery shopping as well as the entertainment spots downtown.
 
The project is named for its location on Kalamazoo Avenue, a traffic artery that sends cars and trucks from downtown Kalamazoo to the west.

Redevelopment plans in the area that are encouraging to Murphy include the construction of a $90 million Kalamazoo County justice facility just west of the Kalamazoo County Administration Building. It is to be built on Kalamazoo Avenue within sight of Westgate Commons. Construction is to begin this spring, with completion by 2023.

Murphy says he also anticipates the development of a downtown events center nearby on Kalamazoo Avenue.  That project, which has been stalled for years by financing and funding concerns, is expected to utilize five acres of space in the Arcadia Commons West area (adjacent to West Kalamazoo Avenue and North Westnedge Avenue). It has surfaced as a facility that would accommodate about 6,000 people for sporting events and an additional 2,000 patrons for other entertainment events. But no timeline has been set for its development.

“It’s great to see the progress there,” Jamie McCarthy says of the 615 W. Kalamazoo Ave. project. The sustainable development coordinator for the City of Kalamazoo’s Community Planning and Economic Development describes the mixed-used development as “a nice transition between downtown and the historic neighborhood.”

McCarthy says the city worried that the unused, old Rorick Brothers shop would become a target for vandalism and other problems.

The property was not a city Brownfield site because it was privately owned. But it did qualify as a Brownfield parcel because it would require soil remediation because of its history as a site for a gas station and more recently as an auto service center.

With the help of Kalamazoo’s Brownfield Development Authority, environmental cleanup was supported with a $400,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Quality (now called the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy). The money was used to help demolish the old structure there and help with environmental cleanup work.

 
While the Stuart Neighborhood is known for its historic homes, the Stuart Avenue Inn Bed & Breakfast, and Comensoli’s Italian Restaurant, it lacks a strong business identity. Stuart Neighborhood residents raised the idea of having more businesses in their relatively small and primarily residential neighborhood during the city’s Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 master plan process (which took place in 2017).  Residents have said they would like to have more businesses within walking distance of the neighborhood.
 
Stuart is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, located just west and north of downtown Kalamazoo. With many homes built in the 1800s, and few built after the 1950s, it is a historic district that is bordered on the north by Kalamazoo Avenue, on the west by Douglas Avenue, on the south by Main Street, and on the east by the Michigan Central Railroad tracks.
 
Murphy, who lived in an apartment in a large Stuart Neighborhood house a few years after graduating from Western Michigan University in 1975, says the efforts of his group have been very well received by members of the Stuart Area Restoration Association and he appreciates that. “They’re all really nice people over there,” Murphy says. “... They are community people, very concerned about their neighborhood and the look of their buildings. I’ve been very, very impressed with them, in my dealings with them.”

Although the Westgate buildings do not match the styles of many of the houses in the area, their design will not detract from other properties in the area, Murphy says. The buildings will have a masonry finish on the ground level and a wood siding treatment on the exterior of its upper levels.
 
He and his partners also purchased unused land on the south side of the old Rorick Brothers location in order to provide more room and parking for the two buildings, as well as to get clearance for the property to be accessed from Eleanor Street as well as Kalamazoo Avenue.
 
“We reopened up Eleanor Street to go in the back,” Murphy says. “There was a vacant piece. … We wanted to be able to get in from the back.” He says a gate will be used at night to prevent motorists from using the parking lot as a pass-thru from Kalamazoo to Eleanor, or vice-versa. That precaution is being taken because people in the neighborhood were worried about it being used that way, Murphy says.

Wark says that Stuart is yet to craft its neighborhood plan, an outline of its needs and wants that can be plugged into the City of Kalamazoo’s masterplan. The neighborhood plan process, which the city has been working with each neighborhood to complete,  involves meetings with groups of area residents. It has been slowed by quarantining that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. 

The desire for more businesses in the neighborhood may be part of the discussion as residents look for nearby locations to fill basic and every day, such as milk, bread, light bulbs, and household goods. A few businesses near the intersection of Douglas Avenue and North Street, including two restaurants and the Stuart Area Restoration Area office, seem as if they are part of the Stuart Neighborhood. But they are at an intersection that is actually the common boundary of three neighborhoods – West Douglas to the west/northwest, the Northside Neighborhood to the north/northeast, and Stuart to the south/southeast. And, aside from the SARA office, they are not in Stuart.

Westgate Commons is being built at one of the neighborhood’s easternmost points.

“I think our tenants are going to be young professionals,” Murphy says. “There’s going to be a lot going on with the courthouse they are building. And they’re starting to talk about the former Gibson Guitar building being turned into a hotel.”

Murphy was referring to the news this past week that PlazaCorp Realty Advisors, which has been working to redevelop the original location of the Gibson guitars, 225 Parson St., will partner with others to develop a Hard Rock Hotels location there.

Speaking of that and the state’s recent approval of a new taxing zone that may help the development of the downtown events facility, Murphy says, “We just think it’s going to be a very vibrant area down there during the next five years.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.