Cornerstone Cornering Renovation Market

June 20, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Whether they realize it or not, anyone who is familiar with Aldrich Place, the Brass Works Building, Tannery Row or almost any other renovated structure downtown is also familiar with the design work of Cornerstone Architects Inc.

But even those who know of Cornerstone’s work might be surprised to learn that others across the state also have become familiar with the firm.

Granted, the work the company has done locally built its reputation for quality historic renovation design here.

But it was a bit of quiet work done in Lansing by Past Perfect Inc. of Grand Rapids that raised the firm’s standing statewide and exposed Cornerstone in places like Flint, Milford, Manistee, Marquette and St. Joseph.

“A couple of things came out from all our involvement here in Grand Rapids. One of those was we have gone through the state of Michigan process and have become a certified historic architect,” said Tom Nemitz, co-owner of Cornerstone.

“Because of that our name gets linked in their database as an architectural firm to call for renovation or adaptive re-use projects around the state. So we have, in turn, been solicited to do proposals,” he added.

Nemitz said neither he nor his partner, John Dancer, did anything to gain that statewide status.

Instead, he said, it was Past Perfect, a firm that provides architects with research on older buildings and pointers on how to get tax credits for renovation projects, that quietly and effectively got his firm registered as a certified historic architect with the state’s Historic Preservation Office.

“It was the women of Past Perfect. They had recommended to the state that we should get listed as a historic architect,” said Nemitz.

“At first, we weren’t aware of it. We kind of stumbled into it, actually, because we were getting all these requests for proposals from cities that we didn’t market to on the east side of the state. They told us we were on the short list for historic architects.”

Rebecca Smith-Hoffman and Jennifer Metz are good friends and partners in Past Perfect, a business respected and used by most local architects, developers and builders.

“You have to have a certain amount of experience to get listed,” said Metz, who also chairs the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. “You have to prove to the state that you have done appropriate preservation projects under the Secretary of Interior’s guidelines.”

The reason for that is approved renovation projects return tax credits to a developer, in some cases up to 25 percent of an investment. So with that much at stake, developers want experienced architects for their projects and they look to the state preservation office for help in finding one.

“They’re not just going to hand out anybody’s name,” Metz said.

“Tom did enough work to be listed. It’s passing his name out as a good preservation architect. I know that Rebecca, early on, really recommended him quite a bit.

“He does good work and we like working with him,” she added. “Some people may say it, but he really does know what he is doing.”

Nemitz said when he checked with the state about Cornerstone’s status, he was told by a historic preservation official that his firm had designed the majority of the renovation projects in West Michigan. After he learned that, the company began getting requests from all over the state.

Cornerstone is currently working on a few historic buildings in the Village of Milford, a project that includes turning an old Henry Ford power plant into a cultural center. The firm also is revitalizing the historic city hall in Manistee, a former Post Office, along with some of that city’s older downtown buildings, and an old state hospital in Traverse City.

“That is a good-sized project, 300-and-some-odd thousand square feet, that we have been tapped to do some work on,” said Nemitz. “The Henry Ford power-generating plant is a smaller project, but it’s a neat project just because of the history involved with it.”

The Mott Foundation recently asked Cornerstone to take a look at two buildings it is involved with in Flint. That invitation came after foundation representatives toured some of the Ionia Street buildings Cornerstone renovated.

“That is an interesting project. We haven’t got to the point yet of actually heading over there. We’re looking at our workload and seeing if that is something we want to get into.”

Cornerstone began its design work locally at 1 Ionia SW, but now works out of 15 Ionia SW, a renovated building it designed — naturally — for real estate developer Sam Cummings and Second Story Properties.

The firm has been in business since 1990 and also designs new construction. Cornerstone did the Steil Youth Center on Sibley Street NW, for example, while it renovated the Siedman Center. Both buildings are owned by the Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth.

Dancer, who heads the company’s Traverse City office, is directing the designs of a new integrated science building in Traverse City and a new maritime academy building on West Grand Traverse Bay for Northwestern Michigan Community College.

So in just a decade, word of the work Cornerstone started at the corner of Ionia and Fulton has spread to every corner of the state, and has captured the firm a generous corner of the renovation design market that covers the extremes of both peninsulas.

“The City of Marquette, way up in the Upper Peninsula, has gotten us to come up there a couple of times to take a look at a couple of different buildings. And we’ve had some interest from the city of St. Joe on a couple of things,” said Nemitz. “It’s worked out pretty well. We’re swamped. We’re all over the place.”

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