Building At Top Of Pecking Order

May 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — It's a remarkable turnaround. Certainly one for the history books, as was made evident recently.

Not that long ago, the Peck Building appeared to have an appointment with the wrecking ball. But recently, the three buildings that make up the Peck were appointed to the National Register of Historic Places — the highest designation that a revived building can receive.

"We got into the project, I guess, on the idea that it was the right thing to do, and with the hope that it would be a good investment," said Rockford Companies COO Kurt Hassberger.

"To see the building brought back to life and to get this kind of a designation is very satisfying."

The dramatic swing in status began when Peck Building Associates LLC bought the buildings from the Kent County Historical Preservation Council in 1998. The partnership, better known individually as the Belmont-based Rockford Development Co. and the Peter Secchia family-owned SIBSCO LLC, immediately began to renovate the 123-year-old structures at Monroe Center and Division Avenue.

Except for a too brief occupancy by the Texas Café, most of the Peck sat empty at the east end of Monroe Center for the better part of a decade. The partners feared that if they didn't get involved, the building would be razed eventually.

"We clearly didn't want to see that happen, given its location and importance to downtown," said Hassberger. "We were some percentage of sure that we were going to be able to turn this into a good investment. We were 100-percent sure that it was a good thing to do for the community."

Although the purchase price was never made public, the partners spent at least $2 million on their award-winning renovation. Besides the honor and prestige that being listed brings, the national historic designation also means they qualify for federal tax credits worth up to 25 percent of their investment.

Today the Peck has offices on the second floor and loft apartments on the third, with 11 of the dozen apartments already leased. Space is available on the 13,000-square-foot ground floor. The partners hope to fill it with retail shops, and with a restaurant in the corner spot at Monroe and Division — directly across from the soon-to-be police headquarters.

"Clearly having the police department there, and the traffic that will bring, will be a major positive," said Hassberger of the site's business potential.

But in 1988, the only thing the Peck was set to offer was yellow-outlined parking spaces. The owners of the city's downtown retail mall, City Centre, had plans to demolish the Peck block, as the three buildings are often referred to, and put in a parking lot. That was the Peck's fate until a group led by Susie Logie and Rebecca Smith-Hoffman protested the building's imminent sale and began a campaign to save the structures.

The group's dogged effort to keep the Peck from becoming rubble kept the building from changing hands.

"I am pleased," said Smith-Hoffman, who is also president of the KCCHP, of the historic designation. She wrote the nomination that added the Peck to the national register. "I think it's a symbol of changing attitudes."

Back in 1992, the KCCHP bought the Peck with the idea of renovating it. The council saw retail on the ground floor and housing on the top two levels. And for the longest time, they were the only ones who had that vision.

Smith-Hoffman and her associates were told by everyone that no one would ever live in the Peck. Especially vocal were area lenders, who dug in their collective heels and refused to finance the building's renovation.

"It was the bane of my existence," said Smith-Hoffman, as she recalled those five years of trying to find financing. "It was frustrating because we knew it could happen. But we were not able to secure the funding. People did not have faith in the idea. Some people did. But certainly the lenders did not, and that is the key."

But as Smith-Hoffman noted, Rockford and SIBSCO shared the vision that KCCHP had. The partners bought the Peck from the nonprofit group, and the rest is not only history, but now it's also officially historic.

"It shows that someone who was, in fact, a little nutty about old buildings realized the economic potential," said Smith-Hoffman. "That was the argument that we were making and they made it happen."

It didn't happen easily, though. Rockford Companies President Michael Van Gessel said because the Peck is really three distinct buildings, the renovation presented a lot of unusual challenges.

For instance, the levels weren't, well, level, as the flooring in each building was set at a different height, which made it tough to combine and meet ADA requirements.

In addition, interior walls that normally would come down couldn't because these held up portions of a structure. And fires over the building's lifetime had left imprints on the framing, meaning that the crew had to replace parts of the interior.

"There were a lot of those challenges. We really had to work with the building more so than in the typical warehouse renovation with wide-open post-and-beam construction," said Van Gessel. "We had to shred a lot of the structure, that when you initially look at it, it doesn't pop out at you. So there was a lot of steel that got added."

The work took longer than expected, as an unexpected higher renovation cost changed their initial plan. Instead of carving out apartments on the top two floors, Van Gessel said they limited those units to the top level and decided to convert the second story to office space.

"We shifted in mid-stream to introduce some alternate uses in there, because the intensity of multi-family inside a structure means more kitchens, more bathrooms," said Van Gessel. "That cost gets pretty significant quickly, where office is a little less expensive to do."

Integrated Architecture designed the renovation, which took about two years to do.

"It was a little abnormal in the sense of how we approached it. Given that we did have the national historic constraints, we knew exactly what the exterior had to be because there is no getting around what those are. So we did the exterior work while we were trying to figure out the interior," he said of the construction timetable.

"In a normal circumstance, I would have liked to have both programs parallel each other and not have been down there as long as we were."

In spite of the challenges and changes Rockford and SIBSCO faced in renovating the Peck, the partners are very happy with the outcome.

"We really did use all of our capabilities in development and construction very well on the job. We're very proud of the job we did," said Van Gessel.

"We definitely knew we were taking on a challenge," added Hassberger. "We knew we were up against some difficulties. But I think, by and large, we've gotten through them."

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