A Cherry Sweet Landing

May 5, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although none of the buildings are actually on Cherry Street, the Cherry Street Landing development is still likely to be recognized for generations to come as arguably the most ambitious downtown construction project of its era.

When Rockford Construction Co., headed by John Wheeler and Michael VanGessel, and SIBSCO LLC, a real estate firm owned by the Peter Secchia family, announced a decade ago that they intended to redevelop roughly 10 buildings in what were largely neglected blocks in the Heartside neighborhood, plenty of eyebrows were raised and more than a few disbelievers chuckled.

Well, as of today, nine structures have been renovated or built, two more are in the design stage, 450,000 square feet of space is occupied, and $60 million worth of construction debt has been spent. For all practical purposes, the Cherry Street Landing project has fulfilled its promise, made believers of its doubters, and has created a new neighborhood hub of education, office and entertainment entities from mostly vacant buildings that were almost all abandoned by the H.H. Cutler Manufacturing Co.

In short, except for a few finishing touches, the Landing has landed.

Tall House Enterprises still has to build its nine-story condo and retail tower at

45 Ionia Ave. SW
, and the new parking ramp at the corner of
Cherry Street
and
Commerce Avenue
won’t open for another year. The old Heartside Manor at
35 Oakes St. SW
still has to be converted, as does the building at
61 Commerce Ave. SW.

But those projects are add-ons that exceed the original plan, which was first laid out as Rockford was wrapping up the renovation of the Arena Station building across

Ottawa Avenue
from what was soon to be the city’s new downtown arena.

“Ray Kisor and I got together and Cutler had listed some of those buildings for sale. There were some that weren’t theirs, a couple of other private owners. So after thinking about it quite a bit, we put together an offer to the four different parties and said if they all signed up, we would buy all of the buildings,” said John Wheeler, Rockford Co. CEO.

Back then, Kisor was with S.J. Wisinki & Co. Today, Kisor leads Commerce Realty, and Wheeler said he was instrumental in putting the sales transaction together as all four owners agreed to the deal.

“Then I went to see Peter Secchia for a financial partnership, because he and I had just finished the PeckBuilding together. He was our partner in that. He said he would get involved and asked what my vision was. I said I had no idea what the vision was, but I told him, ‘This has got to take off,’” said Wheeler.

The new Van Andel Arena was his launching pad, and soon SIBSCO and Rockford were equal partners in something they called the Cherry Street Landing project, a massive undertaking targeted for a portion of the Heartside neighborhood that ran between Cherry and Oakes streets and Ionia and Commerce avenues.

“I liked the way he was thinking. He was converting worn down, but potentially beautiful buildings into rehabilitation projects. He understood construction. I understood finance. So he showed me the potential of the Cherry Street Landing,” Secchia told the Business Journal soon after the partnership was formed.

Two years after they came together, they finished renovating the first building. The Brooks Building at

120 Ionia Ave. SW
was actually three small buildings that were linked together to offer 45,000 square feet of space. In late 1998, InsurAmericorp agreed to lease the top three floors and said it would transfer 55 employees from Cascade Township to the landing the following March.

So the project was off and running — until the Michigan Department of Transportation brought it to a halt with news of an upcoming project. MDOT revealed that the U.S. 131 S-Curve, which cuts through Heartside, would be closed for straightening.

This wasn’t just bad news for the developers, it was the worst possible news they could have received in 1999.

“That was the one that really set us back, because we were carrying all that debt without any tenants. Nobody could even get to the site. It was tough. It was really, really difficult for those first couple of years,” said Wheeler.

At the same time, though, Wheeler said MDOT allowed them and the project’s architect, Design Plus, to have input into the design of the streets and off-ramps. But the highway work forced them to trade properties with the Downtown Development Authority, a move that ended up aiding the project greatly but also added another layer of negotiated contracts to a development that was becoming more difficult to build.

Then the best thing happened. WesternMichiganUniversity officials agreed to locate a graduate center at

200 Ionia Ave. SW
, marking the first time that the Kalamazoo-based school had a presence downtown. Later, the ThomasCooleyLawSchool joined the Landing at
111 Commerce Ave. SW.

“That was really the catalyst. That was a big deal for them: 77,000 square feet on a 20-year lease,” said Wheeler of the WMU decision, which the board unanimously approved.

“Once Western did it, then Cooley came into town and they liked it a lot. Now we’ve got a school of cosmetology coming in, and it’s becoming quite an educational hub down there.”

As the Landing was being developed and consideration was being given to adding more properties to the effort, Rockford picked up a new partner. The Dick DeVos family replaced the Secchia family in the project, and Cherry Street Landing West LLC was formed in 2003.

“Peter’s vision was to help get us started and then pay him off once we got started, and we did. Then we started looking at taking on more buildings down there. Dick DeVos and his son, Rick, got with us and we shared our vision with them. Then they became our 50-50 partner in the project, and that has worked out really well,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler also acknowledged the effort that Vern Ohlmann and Design Plus contributed to the project. He said the firm designed every building except two. BETA Design designed 70 Ionia, which serves as its headquarters, and Cornerstone Architects did the same for the United Way Heart of West Michigan’s home at 118 Commerce.

Wheeler also had high praise for the DDA’s belief in the project and for the city coming onboard.

“The DDA has been phenomenal,” he said. “The city had to make a big commitment to put in the brick pavers, the streetscaping and all that. That was a lot of money. They came through and they did it.”

So with none of the buildings on

Cherry Street
, why was the project named after it? The name had to do with respect for the past, as a century ago a grove of black cherry trees lined the street. But the project itself had nothing to do with the past. In fact, Wheeler said Cherry Street Landing had everything to do with the future.

“I think this is another dream come true for me. I have four sons, two of which are in the business with me, and they had the choice of going anywhere they wanted to to do business. After they graduated from college — they didn’t go to school in Grand Rapids, they went away and came back — and now they’re telling their friends how cool downtown is and especially the Cherry Street Landing entertainment area,” said Wheeler.

“To me, that’s what it was all about to begin with. You have to be able to retain good people in your hometown. You don’t want all the talent leaving all the time. To create these kinds of fun things for young, talented people, gives them a reason to carry on family traditions in Michigan, especially in West Michigan. To me, that’s the success story.”    

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