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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