Building Gets New Life

April 1, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The restoration of downtown's oldest commercial building is coming to a close, as work at 180 Monroe should wrap up in mid-summer.

Terra Firma Development Inc. has nearly 60 percent of the four-story building leased and with the exterior work all but done, tenant build-outs have already started.

Eric Wynsma, who owns Terra Firma and is restoring the building with Jay Carll, told the Business Journal that two law firms have leased 6,400 square feet of loft-style office space on the upper floors of the building at the corner of

Monroe Avenue
and
Pearl Street
. Mojo's Dueling Pianos Bar & Restaurant and Roly Poly Sandwiches occupy the ground-floor space, which totals 7,500 square feet.

Roughly 14,000 of the structure's 24,000 square feet are leased.

"We've got another tenant that hasn't technically signed yet and we've got a couple of financial services and similar type of users that are interested. The problem is, until recently, it didn't look like a project. It looked like Baghdad. We couldn't take people through the building," said Wynsma.

Tenant tours were put off because the exterior work turned out to be a more difficult job than what was first thought. The original brown brick on the building, which opened in 1853, was too far gone and a new façade had to be installed. Pulling off the old brick took longer than expected, which pushed the initial completion date of the project back.

Another precious time-taker involved collecting and removing a million pounds of junk from the top three floors before work on the façade could get underway.

"The exterior is basically done," said Wynsma.

Kuiper & Orlebecke PC, a relatively new law firm, has plans to move into its new office space in May. Wynsma said Terra Firma could get most tenants into the building within 60 days after they sign a lease, depending on the type of build-out needed.

Summit Construction is doing the build-outs. Dykehouse Construction did the exterior work. Brian Barkwell of Via Design Inc. designed the exterior renovation, while Ken Dixon did the same for the interior. Mercantile Bank is financing the project, which has exceeded its initial $1 million budget because of the additional exterior work.

"This project was never intended to be a get-rich-quick scheme. It was obvious that this needed to happen on this corner; somebody needed to renovate it. We knew how to do it, so we did it," said Wynsma.

"It won't be one that we will make a lot of money on in the short term. This won't be one that we sell. We will sit on it for the long term," he said.

180 Monroe, which is actually 180 and 182 Monroe Ave. as both buildings are being renovated after being joined together in 1978, is part of a growing downtown property list that Terra Firma has under control. The company, with its office at 600 Monroe Ave. NW, owns 261,000 square feet of office and retail space in the district and has plans to renovate another 211,000 square feet.

Wynsma and Carll have directed their collective attention lately to the southern portion of the district and are working on five buildings with 104,000 square feet on Grandville Avenue not far from the Van Andel Arena. It's not exactly an unusual move for Terra Firma, as the firm has been active in the real estate market for years. But the company's activity has pretty much been limited to the industrial market, until recently.

"That market has slowed down a lot. There's not as much activity and it's not as much fun. And really it's a super-fun time to be involved in downtown because there is so much happening. A year or two ago, I really thought downtown had come to life, but it really keeps going and has gotten better and better. The tenant activity is there," said Wynsma.

One reason why office-tenant activity is up downtown is because quite a few buildings are being renovated for housing. All the residential work means that fewer structures are undergoing restoration for loft offices, so the competition for tenants in the district isn't as intense as it was five years ago when no one was interested in renting space at a building like 180 Monroe.

"The residential component downtown is absorbing a lot of those type of office buildings, which is just tightening up the office market overall," said Wynsma.

The Grand Rapids office of CB Richard Ellis is the leasing agent for the building.

Wynsma said he was grateful for the help he got with the project from the city. He especially credited Economic Development Director Susan Shannon and Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Jay Fowler for going to bat for his project, which, by the way, is the first office renovation for Wynsma since he and three partners redid the Brass Works Building seven years ago.

Terra Firma bought 180 Monroe from Delta Properties last year because the building may have the best location downtown. It's within a few blocks of three major projects — DeVos Place, the new Grand Rapids Art Museum, and the planned Alticor Hotel — and it's across the street from the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

It's quite possible that the city's oldest commercial building, as so crowned by a city historian in 1976, may very well end up sitting at the new hub of downtown.

"People care about the historical significance of the building and I think everybody wants to be a part of the rebirth of something old like that because it's exciting stuff. But I don't know if that will bring in the tenants. I think the location is really what is driving it," said Wynsma.

"Our goal was to respect the history of the building, but to also have a modern facility at the end of the day that could be marketable to loft-office tenants."    

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