Sam Cummings on creative urban redevelopment in Grand Rapids

History buff, real estate development expert and proud Grand Rapidian Sam Cummings had a vision 20 years ago of a vibrant downtown Grand Rapids. Focusing in on a vacant downtown and renovating one building at a time, often restoring that building to its former historic glory, Cummings set out to lure people back into the city. First to be entertained, then to work, then to live.

Sam Cummings is a proud Grand Rapidian, who says he'd never live anywhere else. It's a "collision of home spirit, opportunity and a passion for history and architecture" that Sam Cummings attributes to his interest in real estate development. The principal and managing partner of CWD Real Estate, Grand Rapids native Cummings has over 20 years experience in the real estate industry. His previous company, Second Story Properties, boasts the renovation of over 24 properties, and CWD has its own robust history. While Cummings recalls a vacant downtown void of vitality, the downtown he sees today -- full of busy bars, coffeeshops, eateries, shops and people -- is what he says he and his team envisioned when they started out years ago.
Some of the greatest cities in the country with great infrastructure have gone through periods of blight.
"We saw the opportunity in the old and neglected buildings, and believed that if we could restore enough of them, sequentially, around a concentrated area, that we could actually create place and environment," Cummings says. "Some of the greatest cities in the country with great infrastructure have gone through periods of blight."
Cummings refers to himself as a "practical preservationist," saying he wouldn't chain himself to a building just for the sake of preserving it if the demolition of the building and the new structure placed there were an upward trade. He also enjoys the juxtaposition of a contemporary building in a historic context or connected to a historic building, as long as scale is appropriate. "I just like good architecture," he explains, "especially if you're focusing on platemaking." He continues, "Winston Churchill said we shape our buildings and thereafter, they shape us. That's incredibly true. You get a sense of place that's fostered by architecture and history and the collision of all those things, and you're able to have a building that tells a story that can foster collective ownership that transcends simple ownership."
You get a sense of place that's fostered by architecture and history and the collision of all those things, and you're able to have a building that tells a story that can foster collective ownership that transcends simple ownership.
In 1995, ground was broken on an entertainment structure that would seat over 10,000 people. This would be the Van Andel Arena at 130 W. Fulton St. Cummings recalls railroad tracks, blown-out buildings and a sea of parking surrounding where the arena stands now with actual businesses sparse. 
Initially, Cummings thought, people were to come to downtown Grand Rapids to be entertained. Then, Cummings had hoped they would be interested enough in downtown Grand Rapids to move their offices there. And thirdly, he says, "they would be intrigued with living there. First to rent, then to own. And that's sort of the sequence we've had in mind -- that's the original vision."
It's demographic inversion, a term coined by Alan Ehrenhalt as the opposite of suburban sprawl. It's the way cities become sustainable and vibrant and interesting. "There's less charm associated with a contrived environment like a suburban office park," Cummings says. "An area of history fosters creativity and a desire to be there. So, we have the diversity and contribution of varying structure and varying uses that contribute to platemaking."
Cummings' first project was 917 Ottawa. This was his office, a place he jokingly referred to as "the easiest building in downtown to get away from" given it's proximity to the highway. From here, he focused on moving south of Fulton Street, the street that cuts Grand Rapids into its North and South halves. Playing home to both the entertainment district surrounding the arena, as well as the Heartside District where the missions are located, this patch of downtown was especially eclectic, something that continues now as the Avenue for the Arts continues to grow along S. Division where it crosses Fulton and divides the city into its East and West halves.
Having an intimate understanding of diversity being good and being okay really helped.
The first residential project was Tannery Row on Ionia St.. in the mid-90s. South of Fulton and market rate, Cummings says this project was a "game changer." Cummings gives credit to the formation of the Heartside Association, which developed about the same time. It gave Cummings the ability to meet a lot of the existing downtown and Heartside neighborhood population and sell a residential downtown product more accurately to those who were nervous. "One of the biggest objections was people coming from the suburban environment were so used to being around an interacting with people only of their social economic group that they were generally afraid of things they didn't understand," Cummings says. "Having an intimate understanding of diversity being good and being okay really helped." 
Other projects Cummings reflects on include the Blodgett Building (15 Ionia), a loft office project he says really helped the neighborhood "hit the gas." This project he described as a coordinated effort between a number of urban revitalization experts, including Guy Bazzani and ICCF. "Talk about a transformation and really taking a neighborhood drag and turning into a focal point in the neighborhood and really creating place," he says.
He also mentions the Waldron Building, also on the same block of Ionia St. Notable for the gargoyles perched on the roof, Cummings says Waldron was "probably the most demanding, because there was just so much of the facade that was gone." Waldron was reconstructed from old photographs. "I just love that kind of stuff," Cummings laughs. "I'm just a freak about history. It's so much fun to see something re-authenticated and then appreciated."
But when asked what Cummings' most important project has been, he is tight-lipped, saying it's yet to come. He slyly says he'll tell us all about it soon, but not quite yet. Instead, he simply reiterates his confidence in Grand Rapids as a growing city on the forefront of great things.
"I see extraordinary opportunity, and I'm incredibly enthusiastic for where our city will be in ten years," Cummings says. "I feel, it's gonna be out of hand."

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Mayor Heartwell
Mayor, Grand Rapids
How has Sam Cummings' vision for downtown Grand Rapids changed the city's urban core? 
Sam, better than most, understands the importance both of retaining the integrity of the historic fabric of a city and infilling its gap-tooth spaces with architecturally compatible buildings. He is a new urbanist who values spaces that work for people -- spaces that draw people in, engage them and help them see themselves and their surroundings in life-affirming ways.
What qualities do you think are important to consider in placemaking?
Placemaking is about creating human-scale activity areas where people gather and good community is born.
What value do you think there is in historic preservation versus tearing down and starting over?  
I value historic preservation both for its role in preserving what is best about our past and for its contribution to environmental sustainability. With respect to the latter, reusing old buildings -- after breathing new life into them -- is preferable to landfilling the rubble of a razed building.
Grand Rapids is one of the greenest cities in the country. What measures have been taken to secure that title?  
We have invested $320M in restoring the water quality of our Grand River, built a world-class transit system, invested in renewable energy (now 23 percent of our power demand) and energy conservation measures, and participated in the world's leading LEED market with our own green buildings.
Of all of Cummings' projects, which one do you think is the most important to downtown?
Tough question to answer. I suppose I would say The Fitzgerald.  Taking the wonderful, old YMCA building and converting it to upscale residential condominiums right on Veterans Park is a great gift to the downtown scene. Thank you, Sam!
What are your hopes for the future of Grand Rapids when it comes to placemaking?  
We need to hold the course, resist tearing down important historic buildings, build infill on vacant sites and attract dynamic, active land uses. We need more residential. We need more retail.