Commission Topples Twin Towers

September 26, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Developers of a towering $50 million project in the Monroe North Business District will have to take their case to city commissioners if they want to build it.

City planning commissioners denied Moch International — the company hoping to put up a pair of 21-story towers either side of Trowbridge Street east of Monroe Avenue — code variances that could kill the project as designed. But city planners said dropping five floors from each tower would put the proposal back on track and within city code.

City commissioners granted the developers a zoning change in July and the Monroe North Business Association was among the first to publicly support the residential and retail project in May through a letter written by association President Jim Zawacki.

But opposition to the proposal came from condominium owners in Monroe Terrace at the northeast corner of Monroe and Trowbridge, just west of the north tower’s proposed site. Those residents complained that they weren’t given proper notice of the rezoning request and argued the tall buildings would deprive them of light and air. Monroe Terrace, the former Ammerman warehouse, stands five stories high.

At a press conference held last week, however, Joseph W. Moch of Moch International said an approved setback would have given residents of Monroe Terrace more light and air than they would have had without the variance. Moch compared the relationship of his building and Monroe Terrace to the one the 16-story McKay Tower has with the smaller structures on Monroe Center.

“If (the building) was any higher, it wouldn’t work. If it was any lower, it wouldn’t look right,” he said of the north tower.

Terry Vanden Akker of Kendall College of Art and Design, a backer of the project, said the towers could dramatically alter the future development of downtown housing, challenge the traditional steel and glass structures found downtown, and change the way in which people live and work in the central business and entertainment district.

But perhaps Joseph A. Moch, also of Moch International, made the strongest point for the project when he pointed out that 398 apartments would go up on only 1.25 Renaissance Zoned-acres on two parcels at Bond and Trowbridge. A development of this size in a suburb, he noted, would probably spill out across 30 acres.

“We’re saving 28 acres of pristine farmland,” said the younger Moch. “The project is very cool, but it’s much more than that.”

The apartment homes, as they are called by the Mochs, would range from one-bedroom, one-bath to three-bedrooms, three-baths, and from 700 square feet to 2,200 square feet. The living units would start on the sixth floor, as levels one through five will have retail space and parking — 250 more spaces than the city requires for both buildings.

The towers would offer residents 24-hour security, private balconies, a fitness center, and an exemption from state and city incomes taxes because of the property’s Ren Zone status. The land once belonged to the Grand Rapids Foundry.

City Business Advocate Susan Shannon said a high-tech company has agreed to locate in the north tower, but declined to offer any details.

The project, which the Mochs call the Monroe North Community Development, also calls for a restaurant on the northeast corner of Bond and Trowbridge and for upgrades to both streets.

Eight years ago, Mayor John Logie used his State of the City address to ask for 5,000 more residents living downtown by 2005. Since then, residential projects have promised or delivered enough housing for roughly 3,500 new residents.

“I have been enthusiastically supporting new housing in downtown for the last eight years and I will continue to do that even after I leave office,” said the mayor. “But there still has to be the right balance between the interest of the developer and the interest of the neighbors, and we will find out whether that right balance is met by this new project.”

Chicago architect Solomon Cordwell Buenz designed the towers, and the Habitat Co., also of the Windy City, would manage the property. If everything had gone as planned demolition work would had gotten underway in January.

On the day before the planners’ decision, Joseph A. Moch reported that private money is behind the $50 million development and then indicated that his firm had a few more hurdles to clear before work could start.

“Our backers have asked us not to reveal their names at this time,” he said. “There are many things that could affect this project.”           

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