Rockford Makes New Downtown Mix

April 2, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — If everything goes as planned, 48 students will be living on the top two floors of a downtown office building this summer. Another 24 could join them later this year or next year on the seventh floor of 5 Lyon St. NW.

The structure, the former Commerce Building, isn't going totally residential.

But a partnership between Ferris State University and Rockford Development Group has turned the two top levels, floors eight and nine, into 16 living units that will become home to four dozen students attending FSU and Kendall College of Art and Design, a pair of higher-education learning centers with campuses downtown.

Floors eight and nine will be finished in July and the schools are taking reservations for occupancy in August.

If those units fill, Rockford says the seventh floor will be converted into another eight living units to accommodate 24 more students.

The conversion — which walls off former office space into apartment units — started in early February. The project also includes renovation of the lobby and numerous upgrades to the building.

"The biggest hurdle that we have in taking a building of that age —that has been in operation and is still in operation — is updating the infrastructure," said Mike Maier, president of the Rockford Development Group.

"We're going to put all new HVAC in the building and new elevators, a new stair tower, and completely redo the electrical service inside the building itself.

"What we're trying to do is to reposition that building in the market, update it, and convert it into a mixed-use building. It's going to look like a new building."

The structure is situated between Ionia and Division avenues, and is across Lyon from the Grand Rapids Art Museum and a short block east of the Kent County Courthouse. It is also one of the larger office structures downtown with 82,800 square feet in its nine stories.

The 2004 Building Owners and Managers Association reported the building was 85 percent occupied in 2003.

"We fully intend to have new office users in there, and we really want to cater to the legal community with it being right next to the courthouse. It's a great location and a lot of the current tenants really enjoy the location and its proximity," said Maier.

Rockford blended housing with offices at two other downtown sites.

In the Peck Building, on the corner of Monroe Center and Division Street, the firm put condos on the top floor with office space a level below, and at the Ferris-Kendall Building, at 110 Ionia Ave. NW, students lived there while a law firm practiced there.

"It's something that can bring a lot of vitality to a building, and it can work well if it's managed well," said Maier of integrating the two uses.

But conversion isn't the only office work Rockford is doing downtown.

The company just began construction on a new four-story office building at 70 Ionia Ave. SW, the site where the old Milner Hotel stood.

BETA Design Group has drawn up the building's plans and will lease the top two floors, leaving only two available.

"Our goal" said BETA CEO Douglas Brant, "is to design a building that looks more like a piece of art than a typical office building, but it's also important to us that it's environmentally sensitive.

"It will truly be the focal point of Cherry Street Landing," Brant added, describing the new structure.

Cherry Street is roughly a $50 million project being done by Rockford and the DeVos family. It involves new construction and renovation projects in an area bounded by Cherry and Oakes streets and Commerce and Ionia avenues.

Maier said his firm and FSU had looked for a student-housing site downtown for almost six years before settling on 5 Lyon.

In addition to having the top two floors for living space, FSU has an option to purchase the building. 5 Lyon gives FSU an opportunity to enlarge its presence downtown, especially if the university ends up with the site of the art museum when that institution moves to Monroe Center.

In the meantime, the next decision FSU officials will likely have to make is whether to turn the seventh floor at 5 Lyon into more living units.

"We've talked about it with the university and we're still in discussions with them. I think we're going to go ahead and demo it and have it available," said Maier.

"Whether it's this year or next year, we don't know at this point. But we may go ahead with it this year, yet." 

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