Raising Hotel Means Razing Israels

February 4, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Alticor officials have two important appointments to keep this month regarding the new Marriott-operated hotel they want to build downtown.

The first is with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Then they will go before the Planning Commission.

The purpose of the second meeting is to get site-plan approval for the hotel Alticor wants to put up on the corner of

Pearl Street
and Campau Square Avenue. The purpose of the first meeting is to explain why the IsraelsBuilding on the same corner has to come down.

City Planning Director Bill Hoyt said planning commissioners will look at three issues concerning the design before they can approve the blueprints.

“One, they’re putting in overhead walkways and those require Planning Commission review and approval. Two, they’re proposing a helistop (a helicopter landing pad) and that requires Planning Commission approval. And three, they’re going to demolish the IsraelsBuilding,” said Hoyt.

Much of the site plan, though, already meets downtown zoning rules.

A hotel is a legitimate use. The hotel is being proposed in a section of downtown where building height isn’t limited. By including a separate 700-car parking deck in the site plan, Alticor should easily meet the parking requirement. And overhead walkways and helicopter landing pads are already allowed downtown.

So the only potential barrier that Alticor might face to raise its hotel would likely come from its plan to raze the IsraelsBuilding at

226 Pearl St. NW

According to the city’s downtown zoning ordinance, a building official has to order its demolition or the Planning Commission has to approve the new use for the Isreals site for Alticor to take the structure down.

Because the building isn’t in a historic district, the preservation commission doesn’t have the final say on whether or not the structure can be taken down. Instead, Alticor will take its plan to the HPC and that panel will make a “preliminary finding as to whether or not the building has significant architectural or historic merit.”

The HPC finding will go to the Planning Commission for its consideration. City planners will make their final recommendation to the City Commission, which has the last word on whether the hotel project goes forward.

One option the HPC has is to ask city commissioners to create a committee that would examine the historical value of the IsraelsBuilding, an effort that could take six months to complete. But past HPC Chairperson Jennifer Metz didn’t think commissioners would go that route, even though she feels the building could have been included in the hotel design.

“I basically feel that the building is usable and the designers and owners clearly do not want to use it in their plan. I think the HPC should recommend a study committee be formed because they have no other recourse, and it is the right thing to do because the building is historic and valuable to the city,” said Metz

“Then I predict the City Commission will likely deny that request and the hotel will happen regardless,” she added.

The building that housed Israels Designs for Living from 1977 until last year first opened in 1899 as home to a shoe company before it became a warehouse in later years.

“We need a real philosophy and buy-in from city leaders that keeping historic fabric is important and not an impediment to development,” said Metz, a board member of the Kent County Council for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

“I argue that historic preservation is largely responsible for any charm or attraction this city holds today. It is time the movement is given credit for what it has done for our city.”

An organized effort to save the IsraelsBuilding hasn’t surfaced so far.

The hotel, which was unveiled last week by Amway Corp. co-founder Richard DeVos and Alticor Inc. Chairman Steve Van Andel, will rise 24 stories, offer 340 guest rooms, and have one of the largest privately-owned ballrooms in the state with seating for 1,000.

The project, estimated to cost from $60 million to $70 million, will take two years to complete. The parking deck, the most recent addition to the project, could add up to $10 million to the final cost. About $11 million in public dollars are going into the project.

“We believe this to be an architectural showcase for the city. We have an exceptional riverfront location to work with,” said Joseph Tomaselli, president of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, who added that a groundbreaking is planned for this summer and the hotel would open for business in September 2007.

DeVos told those present at the unveiling that the hotel was being built to support the expected increase in convention business that will come from the recently finished

DeVos Place
, the new convention center.

The additional 340 rooms from the new hotel will give the Convention and Visitors Bureau about 1,450 downtown hotel rooms to offer to meeting planners, along with the other 4,800-or-so that are located throughout the county. The hotel occupancy rate in the county for 2004 was slightly less than 55 percent.     

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