Plaza Not Center Key To Hotel Idea

August 2, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Blue Bridge Ventures President Jack Buchanan is confident that an upcoming meeting with city commissioners will get him a step closer to finishing a project he has been working on for eight years: to put a world-class hotel on Calder Plaza.

At that meeting, tentatively set for late this month, Buchanan will unveil a plan to move city departments from City Hall, which is on the plaza, to another downtown location at no expense to taxpayers. He has high hopes of leaving that meeting with a binding option on a buy-sell agreement with the city.

If that happens, it will be a day that Buchanan has been waiting for since 1994 — a year before he formed Paramount Properties with Bill Bowling and the year when the idea for a Hotel Calder Plaza first struck him.

Strangely, the catalyst for his idea back then wasn’t the talk of expanding the convention center that sits across the street from the plaza. Buchanan said it was the plaza itself. He saw something more than many see in that drab slab of concrete that is home to the bright orange stabile designed by Alexander Calder.

He first noticed it when he was a leasing agent for Tol Real Estate, trying to fill the Frey and NBD office buildings across Ottawa Avenue from the plaza.

“To me, it seemed like Central Park and it seemed like there was an opportunity to do something a little more dramatic than what was there,” he said.

His idea grew in late 1995 after Paramount set up shop in the Frey. Every time he looked out his office window each workday, he saw that there wasn’t much activity on the plaza.

“It was something that hardly anybody was using and it is probably the most focal point of the city. It really lacked people,” he said.

“It was intended to draw people to it. It had our most visible piece of art and it didn’t show any vitality on a daily basis. Looking at it, I didn’t think it was hitting its best use,” he added. “We were drawn to the site because of the plaza, not really the convention center.”

Richard Keating, the Los Angeles architect who designed the 24-story hotel, told city commissioners last month that in his 34 years of designing buildings he had never seen a city more tied to a piece of art as Grand Rapids is to the Calder. He also told them that the hotel was designed to enhance the plaza, to make it a more active place than it is now.

“He really designed it so the front door was facing the plaza. It was the festival area that he really focused on. Seeing it is a hotel, we will obviously cater to the convention center traffic. But at the same time, we will create a focal point for the plaza,” said Buchanan.

Eight years is a fairly long time to work on a project without getting some immediate gratification. Only a select few seem to have enough persistence not to give up and enough drive to push past the rejections, and Buchanan has had his share of setbacks and negative press about his idea along the way.

But he said he has never come close to throwing in the towel.

“No. I know it’s goofy, but there is just something in me,” he said matter-of-factly before his voice trailed off and picked up again. “I still think we have a great project, something that is a home run for everybody.

“If I didn’t think we could accomplish what we set out to do, we wouldn’t have spent the time, the money and energy that we have. And not just Blue Bridge, but Keating and Hines and everybody else,” he added.

Hines Interests LP, a Houston-based commercial real estate development firm, joined Buchanan in the hotel project three years ago. After a lengthy search for a partner, a Chicago broker, a banker and his father-in-law recommended Hines to Buchanan. He was first put in touch with the Chicago office of Hines and then shifted to the firm’s Detroit office.

“We recognized that we didn’t have the kind of background to build a Class A project like this, and they did. They had better access to resources, including people like Keating, and they were enamored with the idea of really having an impact on the skyline of our city,” said Buchanan.

“But they didn’t want to get involved with a project that they didn’t think was viable.”

Hines sent Chris Opipari here from the Boston office to study the local market and to determine whether the city could support a major convention-center hotel. Thirty months ago, Opipari reported back to Hines that the project was doable.

“Then they jumped in with both feet and they said this was the real deal.”

Blue Bridge and Hines then began talks with the city and county.

Keating was brought on board after Buchanan asked for some information about the architect and instead received a coffee-table-sized book that detailed his career. The book was one of a series on the nation’s top 50 architects. Buchanan said he was impressed with Keating’s work, and described him as a humble guy who was enthusiastic about the project.

“They committed resources and we committed resources. And Keating spec-ed most of his time, as we just really paid him for his out-of-pocket expenses,” said Buchanan.

“Everybody really dedicated themselves to saying there is a real project here, so let’s keep at it.”

Despite all the work he has put into his idea and all the optimism that he has expressed for the hotel project, Buchanan remains a realist. He told the Business Journal that he still has a tough road ahead of him, having to convince at least four city commissioners that his idea is in the best interests of everyone involved — and he may only get one shot to do so.

Then he has to do that all over again for the county.

Still, someone doesn’t come this far — from leasing office space to putting together what could become the highest priced private project that downtown has ever seen — without faith. And no one can rightfully accuse Buchanan of not having plenty of that.

“We’re very confident that this is going to happen,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable. We’ve got all the pieces put together. It’s just a matter of getting beyond the politics, right now.”  

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