Berkey And Gay Building Enters The National Historic Register

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The amalgam of eight old furniture factory buildings collectively called Berkey & Gay is about to resume life as a big apartment complex and as a new permanent resident of the National Register of Historic Places.

Currently, the old structure at 940 Monroe NW is undergoing a $20 million renovation transforming the manufacturing site into upwards of 320 apartments whose lessees will have off-street parking in the new B&G multi-level garage.

Pioneer Construction is redeveloping the structure, which last year earned historic landmark status from federal and Michigan historic commissions.

It was almost a year ago that the City Commission took up Pioneer's request for local landmark status. The governing body appointed a three-member committee — Brian Winklemann, Rebecca Smith-Hoffman and Jennifer Metz — to assess the request and to report back to the city's Planning Commission and to the state.

Smith-Hoffman is president of the Kent County Council for Historic Preservation. Metz is a member of the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission. Both are advocates for preserving the city's older buildings. Winklemann owns an architectural firm and is the architect for the Berkey & Gay renovation.

The committee recommended the designation, which has very concrete dollars-and-cents meaning to Pioneer.

Referring to the Berkey & Gay project, she said, "There, again, was a building that we had to fight for two or three times to keep it standing.  It was going to be torn down and was thought to be totally useless.

"I was just in it," she added.  "It has beautiful apartments, beautiful views, and the ideas for the reuse of that building have been brought to fruition.  It is very impressive."

She said the economic development of downtown Grand Rapids is dependent on the reuse of such buildings. "Now it's being proven that it can work."

By investing so heavily and coming to the rescue of what now is an recognized at local, state and federal levels as a historic site, the firm now qualifies for a combination of federal and state incentives: tax credits totaling 25 percent of its investment.

Pioneer estimated that the project would cost at least $20 million.

The firm also has made it plain it expects to make a profit from the drawn-out renovation project.

Pioneer's plans were to build 30 efficiency apartments, 170 one-bedroom units, and 150 two-bedroom apartments. The renovated structure has an area that exceeds 400,000 square feet. The project manager, Pioneer's Jim Czanko, last autumn told the Business Journal that Pioneer expected to complete work on the units this spring, though some work on the building will continue until near the end of this year.

He said the project involves creating 30 efficiency units, 170 one-bedroom apartments, and 150 two-bedroom apartments in the building. A 400-car parking ramp is being added at the south end of the building. The ramp replaces an old addition to the original factory.

Czanko has said the apartments will be priced and marketed to young professionals and students. Rents are expected to range from $600 to $800 a month, utilities and parking included.

Last year Czanko told the Business Journal that Pioneer feels the Berkey & Gay project is a cornerstone that will spark further developments in the Monroe North area.

The Monroe North Tax Increment Financing Authority apparently saw it that way too. The authority's board adjusted its policy last spring to reimburse Pioneer for up to 80 percent of the tax increments the project generates, a figure estimated at $125,000 annually. The remainder of that tax will go toward infrastructure improvements in the district.

The Monroe North Business District is a rectangle lying between Division Avenue and the Grand River, on the east and west, and by Leonard to Michigan streets on the north and south.

The district already has begun growing in terms of office population, with parking becoming difficult to find in contrast the situation as recently as two years ago.

The first section of the Berkey & Gay Building was constructed about 1880 with seven additions coming during the subsequent six decades.

The Berkey & Gay Furniture Co. was a pioneer in the industry and a major reason why Grand Rapids became famous internationally as The Furniture City.

Pioneer Inc. is one of the region's largest general contracting and real estate development firms.

The company was founded in 1933 when Earl Beckering Sr. started the Beckering Construction Co. Earl Beckering Jr. changed the firm's name to Pioneer Construction in 1962, which is now a division of Pioneer Inc.

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