Weiss Blends Architecture Politics

May 28, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — John Weiss is in the business of creating places. And not just any places, but communities and downtown developments that can change lives and transform urban areas into spaces to be admired.

Weiss is the new president and CEO of Design Plus and said he is excited to take the full-service design firm into a new realm of creation.

“We want to create more ‘places’ to give to the community and further the community in the look and feel of the areas we transform,” Weiss said.

Weiss was officially appointed president and CEO two months ago, taking over for Vern Ohlman, but has served the firm in an executive capacity for the past two years.

Some of the current projects with which he’s involved include Grand Valley State University’s Pew Campus, new construction at Hope College, the Cherry Street Landing area, Michigan Street’s “medical mile” and a new Johnson Controls facility.

Design Plus services clients in architecture, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, landscape engineering and interior design, beginning at site design in some cases and working until the last end table is in place.

The firm also has a unique management structure, Weiss said, that includes three board members from outside the firm who offer a community perspective. Sister Carmelita Murphy, Ron VanSteeland and Keith Walker all serve on the board and have different points of view.

“We are looking at this as sort of Hollywood talent, where the talent is one entity and the management is another entity,” Weiss stated. “We started this process about five years ago, from our partners, to lead us in a different direction and take a different approach to leadership. I am not an architect, but I do have a heavy involvement in the community, which gives me a capacity in which to manage the firm and certain projects.”

Establishing those community ties began when, at age 21 and newly graduated from Hope College, Weiss became city manager of Coopersville, “the youngest city manager in America.” With a police chief who was more than 30 years his senior, a staff of 22 and a budget of $3 million, Weiss put his brief experience to use fast.

“It was very exciting but nothing I was expecting to do,” Weiss remembered. “I thought I was going to use my political science degree to go into work with politicians in Lansing.”

From there Weiss moved into the position of director of economic development and assistant to the city manager of Wyoming. While there he was involved in industrial development projects and with assisting the management of all city departments.

Weiss then left the public sector for the world of architecture when he became vice president of WBDC Group, an architectural, engineering, interior design and community-planning firm similar to Design Plus. He also taught courses in business management, personal administration and government, and kept his hand in politics while serving as Cannon Township’s supervisor.

Now as president and CEO of Design Plus, Weiss doesn’t plan to discontinue his political work. “It seems that whenever I am involved in architecture as a job I am always doing political work in my spare time, and when I am involved in political work full-time I am doing some type of architecture in my spare time,” Weiss said. “Here it is nice that we can begin to blend the two together.”

And blending is another one of Weiss’ many talents, especially at Design Plus.

“We like to manage as many components of the process as possible so that we can have a continuity and really bring through what the client is looking for in every aspect,” he said. “We have been working on some large projects that involve urban planning and some site assessment or development. We are then able to take the project from start to end.”

That is where the political side comes in and where Weiss is able to use his love of architecture and politics. The firm is working on the “medical mile” project on Michigan Street hill, and he looks to create a medical community with the heart center, the hospitals and the upcoming Hope Center, a project with Saint Mary’s where patients can stay while receiving cancer treatment.

“We are working to create communities, in the downtown area and elsewhere, with the Heartside Park, the downtown streets, medical community and college university campuses,” Weiss said.

During his free time, Weiss prefers to see the world rather than build it. He has visited Japan with his son Ben, plans a trip to Peru as well, and also takes the time to scuba dive when he is not jetting off across the world.

Weiss, who grew up in Holland, also takes on projects close to home. He is now working with the West Ottawa schools, where he was a K-12 student, to develop projects for the district.

“We are working to give back to the community in many ways,” Weiss said. “Through the creation of places and communities we can really begin to focus more on what a community needs and what businesses need around them to incorporate a sense of continuity.”           

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