Heartland Real Estate Business

February 2006



 By  Kevin Jeselnik


   Robert B. Aikens & Associates and BDR are creating a retail and residential village in an effort to give the people of Grand Rapids Township, Michigan, a place to gather.


   As populations in major metropolitan areas grow over time, it is inevitable that some citizens will look outside the city limits for a new home. When new towns first begin to emerge on the fringe of large cities, they sometimes form as little more than bedroom communities before growing large enough in size to forge an identity. What can be lost is a central gathering point in which a community’s residents can congregate.


   That missing piece is something that Birmingham, Michigan-based Robert B. Aikens & Associates is seeking to bring to Grand Rapids Township, a suburban community located just northwest of the city of Grand Rapids in the western region of the state. Partnering with Grand Rapids-based BDR, Aikens is planning an expansive retail and residential development on part of a 60-acre tract of land under its control in the northeastern quadrant of the township.


   The new project, known as the Village of Orchard Hills, did not start out in its current form, as Jim Fielder, vice president of Robert B. Aikens & Associates explains. “We have been looking in the Grand Rapids market for 8 or 9 years to see what would be the right fit. We started looking for a spot on the northeast side of Grand Rapids [Township] for a mall location. As time went on, the idea of the lifestyle [center] — or village, as we call it — concurrently developed with the area’s population and we started concentrating on putting this site together.”


   The site of the Village is at the corner of Three Mile Road and East Beltline Avenue, a residential area composed primarily of single-family housing. The project will include a large retail component on approximately 40 acres. The developers are giving serious consideration to including a collection of residential units on second floors above the retail and in a separate condominium/townhome component that will provide a buffer between The Village and the existing residential population.


   If the project comes out similar to Aikens’ Village of Rochester Hills in Rochester Hills, Michigan, the residents of Grand Rapids Township will receive more than just a new lifestyle center. The development team is seeking to provide a prominent meeting place in a municipality that currently lacks a town center setting. The Village of Orchard Hills is expected to begin construction mid-2006 and open in fall 2007.


   The Village of Rochester Hills was Aikens & Associates’ first development in this format and has been widely embraced in the Rochester Hills community, which similarly lacked a downtown environment. The center is often used for civic events, from Christmas tree lightings to festivals to arts and crafts shows.


   The Village’s unique design, from Peterhans, Rea + Roman of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, facilitates this walkable, community-centric feel. The main drive will wind slightly, stretching the length of the site with a majority of the retailers located along  wide, landscaped sidewalks designed by Farmington Hills, Michigan-based landscape architecture firm Grissim/Metz Associates. Rather than develop a typical retail center on a grid system, the developers are trying to create a more naturally flowing atmosphere. “We think that having a little bend in the road, as opposed to totally squaring it up, gives people the feeling that there is something beyond and draws them to the end of the street,” Fielder notes.


   The impetus behind the civic and community offerings, Fielder says, is to “add a touch of interest and host activities on an ongoing basis” in order to establish Orchard Hills as a central fixture in the community. The center will include fountains, chessboards, benches and green areas to encourage visitors to take advantage of Orchard Hills for more than just shopping. The long-term success of this project will be decided on the traffic generated not just by the line of retailers on hand, but by the community events held there. In Rochester Hills, activities such as face painting and arts and crafts events are often held for kids and adults to enjoy.


   In Orchard Hills, the approximately 400,000-square-foot retail component can be accessed via a newly created Main Street with the shops lining the street fronts of additional new roads. Parking will be available on the street as well as in abundance behind each building. The developers are looking for two or three anchors, including an upscale grocer and a bookstore. A majority of the approximately 50 retailers will be familiar to those who have visited other lifestyle centers. At Aikens’ other Village project in Rochester Hills, tenants include Parisian, Food Emporium, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, J.Crew, Banana Republic, Hollister Company, Gap and Yankee Candle. Two restaurants are proposed at the main entrance of the Village of Orchard Hills, which will be located off of East Beltline Avenue.


   Planning of the residential component is still underway. Fielder says that the initial idea is to place the approximately 68 multifamily units along Dunnigan Avenue, which runs parallel to East Beltline Avenue on the opposite side of the development, as a buffer between the Village’s stores and the existing residential area. More residential units are being considered for future development on the site’s remaining acreage.


   While the developers hope that the Village of Orchard Hills in Grand Rapids Township will be embraced by the locals like the Rochester Hills project was, Fielder knows that the team cannot define how and by whom the project will be used. “Ultimately,” he says, “the people [of Grand Rapids Township] are the ones that will really determine how the facility is being used.”


© 2006 Robert B. Aikens & Associates, LLC