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Redevelopment Brings New Energy for Downtown Flint

By Matt Bach

Location: Flint, Mid-Michigan
Population: 124,943

Exterior of the new Wade Trim building.

The 1989 documentary film Roger & Me cemented Flint as the poster child for a community down on its luck. This birthplace of General Motors would often find itself the subject of national headlines on the declining auto industry and related economic woes—crime, blight, unemployment, poverty, etc.... Lately, however, Flint has been turning heads for its positive changes. It is steadily transforming from factory to college town—with the academic reputation to attract top students and businesses, and the housing demand to attract developers. Uplifting stories about Flint have recently appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and other national publications. Much like the “Little Engine” children’s story, Flint is gaining a reputation as the town that could.

City leaders admit they have a ways to go, but like anything else, success has to start somewhere. Part of the turnaround is attributed to a variety of redevelopment and reuse projects in the heart of downtown. “Flint’s upgraded downtown serves as the hub of our growing higher education, health care, and financial sectors. It’s the common ground where we can all come together from across the city and county,” said Flint Mayor Dayne Walling.

As home to four institutions of higher learning—Kettering University, the University of Michigan-Flint, Baker College, and Mott Community College—Flint regularly experiences an influx of close to 30,000 students, many of whom need housing, places to dine, and shopping outlets. Developers and civic leaders are relying on this large student population and the many under-utilized buildings constructed during the auto industry’s boom times to revitalize downtown. In less than a year’s time, downtown Flint has seen the addition of five new restaurants and/or nightclubs, and later this year, the first full-service grocery store downtown has seen in decades, is expected to open.

The Elements of Change

A leader in the change is Uptown Developments LLC, founded in 2002 by a team of seven local business owners and investors to acquire and renovate real estate in downtown. Starting with a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the group bought about a dozen buildings. Not sure what to do at first, they eventually went with the mixed-use development concept that once made Flint’s downtown the place to be.
“We collectively came up with the idea of putting mixed retail on the ground floor and adding residential space on the upper floors,” said Scott Whipple, development and project manager for Uptown Developments. “We thought it would be beneficial to enlivening downtown. The residential component is not the most lucrative part—it’s really the office component that anchors these projects. But we need people to make the businesses on the first level successful so they can all feed off each other.”

Consulting firm Rowe Professional Services Company Inc., relocated its headquarters to the second and third floors.

Chris Everson, 42, and his wife Jasmin, 29, are among those filling up the many loft apartments in Flint. Chris works downtown and loves being able to walk to his job just blocks away, or grab a bite to eat at one of the many new restaurants a half block away. “I like the energy of downtown,” Everson said. “I moved downtown in 1994, when it was desolate. Now, there are people out every night, hanging out and going for walks downtown. It’s fun to see downtown coming alive.”

Currently, Uptown Developments has $30 million worth of investment planned for downtown Flint in seven projects.

“I’ve been in Flint since 1976, and I’ve seen many attempts to move downtown forward fail,” said Mel Serow, a former Flint television reporter who is now public relations manager for UM-Flint. “I think this time the movement is right. I think the backers are in place, and I see more happening now than ever before. I’m very optimistic that we’re going in the right direction.”

The burgeoning college population helped lure developers, as did the fact that the next generation of young adults have shown that they are tired of the suburbs and want to be downtown. “I think everybody has seen what happen to cities like Boston and Philadelphia, with universities completely driving their economies,” Whipple said. “This is what we’re hoping to see happen in Flint. I think we’re just scratching the surface.”

In the fall of 2009, Uptown Developments opened the first phase of the Riverfront Residence Hall project. This project put student housing in a former 16-story, 340,000-square-foot hotel located across the street from the UM-Flint campus and a short drive from the other area colleges. The first eight floors and 250 units are complete and a second phase with an additional 250 units is slated to open this fall, Whipple said.

1925-era First National Bank building underwent a complete renovation, offering residential lofts on floors three through seven.

Additional reuse and redevelopment projects in downtown Flint include:

  • The redevelopment of the 1925-era First National Bank building into 16 one- and two-bedroom lofts. The project won a 2007 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.

  • Half a city block that was torn down and rebuilt into a 25,000-square-foot mixed-used building. The new Wade Trim Building, named for the engineering firm that occupies the office space, offers five retail/restaurant/bar spaces on the ground floor, offices on the second floor, and four loft apartments on the third floor.

  • A completed mixed-use redevelopment of the 83,000-square-foot Rowe Building in the center of downtown that includes the adaptive reuse of three historic buildings. The project cost $22.7 million and renovated multiple buildings into one modern office-loft-retail luxury building with a four-story lobby atrium. The consulting firm Rowe Professional Services Company Inc. is the anchor tenant, and relocated its headquarters and about 85 staff members to the second and third floors. Two restaurant spaces with outside dining will flank the atrium lobby’s main level. The top floor boasts eight luxury loft apartments, and the apartments and office spaces are fully occupied.

  • The Durant Hotel, vacant since 1973, is being transformed into a mix of commercial space and apartments for students and young professionals. The hotel was named after William Durant, the founder of General Motors, who was born in Flint.

  • The Berridge Hotel, formerly a 100-unit flophouse that rented space to ex-cons for $20 a night, was gutted and remodeled into loft apartments in late 2008 under the name Berridge Place Loft Apartments. It has 17 units and is 100-percent full.

So Why Is This Happening?

Whipple credits the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a private foundation based in Flint, for funding studies and grants to make many of these projects feasible.
Another key partner in Flint’s revitalization is Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, a not-for profit organization with ties to Uptown Developments. Whipple explained that the corporation has a board of directors that allows them to funnel grants to the projects. “We’re connected at the hip,” Whipple said. “The purpose of Uptown Reinvestment Corporation has been to pursue grants that might be used to help make the Uptown Developments projects more financially successful. Our goal is to keep the debt down.”

Another key to getting the projects was having patient investors committed to Flint. “Some of the investors behind Uptown Developments lived in Flint and did business here for many years, and they wanted to give back to the community,” Whipple said.

Matt Bach is communications director for the League. He can be reached at 734-669-6317 or mbach@mml.org.

 

 

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