Pioneer Inc Is Pioneering Another Major Renovation

May 15, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — So far, Chris Beckering is happy.

He is Pioneer Construction’s project manager for the American Seating Park — the renovation of a half-century-old furniture factory on Grand Rapids’ West Side into a mixed-use residential, office and light industrial complex.

City Hall last week gave final approval to zoning for the project from which crews in March began removing asbestos, old roofing, wiring and plumbing.

The complex is bound by Seventh Street on the south, Seward Avenue on the west, Broadway Avenue on the east and the vacated right-of-way that once was Ninth Street on the north.

“We’re actually ahead of schedule,” Beckering told the Business Journal. He said crews probably would begin framing in the interior this week.

The project is similar to Pioneer’s earlier conversion of the old Berkey & Gay furniture factory on North Monroe into an office and apartment complex now known as The Boardwalk.

In terms of total area, the American Seating project is about 70 percent the size of The Boardwalk and will have only a fourth as many apartments.

Beckering said that one reason the schedule is running so well is that in creating The Boardwalk, Pioneer learned a great deal about the business of renovation.

Several other factors are boosting the schedule, he said. First, it won’t be necessary to raze some structures to build a multi-story parking lot. The American Seating site already has nearly 800 parking lot spaces. Another 56 spaces will be available in carports.

Second, the American Seating building is a single structure rather than a cluster of add-ons as at Berkey & Gay. Third, the property is in far better condition.

“It is incredibly overbuilt,” Beckering said.

Instead of 19th century timber pillars and sagging wooden floors and joists, for instance, the American Seating building has massive poured-concrete columns that swell at their tops into broad supports for concrete floors with wood overlayment. He also said that American Seating had maintained the property well.

The four-story American Seating building was constructed in the shape of a capital letter F.

The main building — almost two football fields long — is a 200,000-square-foot structure that faces south onto Seventh.

The “top” of the F is a 400-foot wing with 120,000 feet of space looking west toward Seward Avenue. Pioneer will construct 65 apartments in the wing, both two- and four-bedroom sizes.

A much smaller single-story wing completes the F by jutting north from the center of the main building.

Drawings show a heavily landscaped corridor between the two wings, with a meandering walk and an amphitheater.

The single-story wing is destined to become a retail office furniture showroom, while the main building will be devoted to office and light industrial uses.

These elements represent the interest of American Seating in the project.

The manufacturer actually is the co-developer with Pioneer, the two companies having joined as American Seating Park LLC. American Seating has committed to leasing half the space in the main building.

American Seating will use that space for its headquarters’ offices. The firm no longer needed its Seventh Street building for manufacturing, which continues in a building across Ninth Street on the north side of the 12-acre American Seating Park block.

Because the building is in such excellent condition, Beckering said the project will entail little work on the structure. Instead, the project — slated for completion in 2004 — will consist primarily of rewiring, plumbing, installing air conditioning and reconfiguring the interior spaces.

Development of American Seating Park also calls for construction of a separate two-story, 23,000-square-foot building on the property’s Ninth Street margin. The developers propose a restaurant for the first floor and offices for the second story.

The project lies in a Renaissance Zone, an older area into which the city is trying to lure such development with tax incentives. The incentives are that businesses in such areas are free of nearly all state and federal taxes. Because American Seating Park would have a residential component, its inhabitants would be free of state and local income taxation for a specified period of years.

The block lies in an area of the sort that many urban leaders call “transitional.”

Many of the homes adjoining the American Seating Park are neat and well kept, but they also appear to date from the mid-20th century or earlier. Moreover, several industrial buildings are in the environs, some of them vacant.

By making the area part of a Renaissance Zone, the city had hopes developers such as Pioneer and American Seating would invest in the area to give it a shot in the arm.

But having taxes forgiven is no guarantee of success. The CEO of Pioneer earlier this year said he was “a little nervous,” and that he is not as confident about it as he was about Berkey & Gay.

But he is in hopes that apartments at American Seating Park will appeal to the same people — students and young professionals — who have leased nearly all The Boardwalk’s 248 apartments.           

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