Developers Eye Steketees Building

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Steketee’s Department Store building may be brought back to life again in a few months. That’s the message from the firm that has renovated more urban structures here than any other company over the last six years.

Rockford Companies CEO John Wheeler told the Business Journal that an out-of-town developer recently signed an option to buy the vacant, eight-story building at 86 Monroe Center. If the deal closes, Rockford would restore the structure for commercial use on the ground floor and housing units on the other levels.

“The developer that we are working for is a heck of a good guy and he has retained us to do some studies for him. He has got a 60-day option on it and I think it is going to come together,” said Wheeler.

“It’s not unlike what we were going to do,” he said of the new blueprint. “There will be commercial retail space, maybe a downtown bookstore and a few other things, on the main floor. There is 20,000 square feet on the main floor, and he is going to keep that as commercial space. And then on floors two through eight, there will be housing.”

The proposed plan for the building is similar to one that Rockford, a builder, developer and property management firm based in Belmont, and SIBSCO, the Peter Secchia family-owned real estate company, had when the two bought the structure in 1998. The major difference between the proposals is that the new plan doesn’t call for a parking garage in the basement because the city is building a new ramp on a site one block south.

“He does not want to do that as there is no return on his investment, not with the city building the Monroe Center 2 ramp right across the street,” said Wheeler.

SIBSCO and Rockford sold the building in March 2000 to Carrier Hotels-Grand Rapids LLC, which planned to build a tech center for high-speed telecommunications and Internet access there. But a downturn in the tech economy squashed that plan, and investors in the company have been trying to sell the building ever since. Carrier Hotels paid $1.6 million for the structure.

“He wants to do a complete historical renovation on the building, like we did on the Peck Building, where it was built just the way it was originally,” said Wheeler of the potential buyer, who has the exclusive right to purchase it until late January.

“It’s the last big, empty building in that area. We’re doing some design work and pricing on it, so we’re going to be real busy for the next two months working on it.”

Wheeler also said his firm was starting work again on Cherry Street Landing, an ambitious 500,000-square-foot commercial project along Ionia and Commerce avenues between Oakes and Cherry streets. Rockford and SIBSCO also unveiled the landing in 1998.

“We have some meetings with some people who are interested in doing some leases there again, now that the road construction is mostly done, the S-curve is done, and the dust has cleared. We’re in negotiations. There is nothing I can tell you for sure, yet. But it’s as active as it has been in three years,” he said.

Wheeler said his firm will spend about $150,000 to raze a pair of decaying buildings in the landing soon to make the renovations easier to do. The city has already approved Rockford’s request to demolish the structures.

From 1995 through this year, Rockford Companies has restored, or is restoring, 15 urban buildings, many in the core downtown sector. Those renovations account for $93.8 million in construction volume and $87.3 million worth of development volume, or almost $181 million in investments over the last six years — a figure that probably makes the firm the core city’s most active builder and developer.

“I got to be honest,” said Wheeler, “we’re having a ball right now.”

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