Steketee LEEDs Downtown

July 21, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Blue Cross Blue Shield now lives in a green house, at least the Western Michigan division does. So do two other businesses.

The nonprofit health insurance company has its regional office in the former Steketee building, sharing that historic space with Independent Bank of West Michigan and River Bank Books and Music. The United States Green Building Council recently granted the nine-story structure at 86 MonroeCenter its environmentally friendly LEED certification. LEED certification signifies that a building is a sustainable and energy-efficient site that meets USGBC's indoor environmental quality.

"None of this would have been possible had it not been for Blue Cross Blue Shield's commitment to moving downtown in the first place and becoming an anchor on MonroeCenter," said Rockford Companies CEO John Wheeler.

"Their support of our vision to create sustainability, both from an economic and an environmental standpoint, truly made this project a success," he added.

Blue Cross Blue Shield committed to moving its 266 employees to Steketee's almost three years ago and now occupies floors two through eight. Independent Bank set up shop there a year later, while River Bank Books opened its doors there late last year.

Rockford Companies directed the building's restoration work, which was a full interior and exterior renovation, and Design Plus did all the architectural and engineering tasks for the project. Today, Steketee's is the only building on MonroeCenter wearing the USGBC label and the largest LEED-certified renovation ever done downtown. Its 108,000 square feet are fully occupied.

Wheeler said it took 18 months from the time the renovation was complete to receive the council's energy and environmental design status. To get that designation, the building had to be gutted. All the hazardous materials, such as paints, adhesives, asbestos and lead were removed to make way for low-VOC or VOC-free materials.

New energy-saving electrical, HVAC and lighting systems were installed, along with high efficiency heat pumps that reduce usage. Old water faucets were replaced with new ones that lessened water consumption by 24 percent above USGBC standards. Overall, energy use in the building has been lowered by 27 percent more than the LEED design standards require.

"Our vision was to create an inspirational environment downtown that reflected our commitment to sustainable building and to the city of Grand Rapids," said Wheeler.

"With the help of some very skilled architects and engineers at Design Plus, we were able to do that safely and effectively."

Wheeler said the contributions that Design Plus made to the project allowed the building to pick up a couple of additional certification points that it might not have otherwise received. In all, the Steketee building scored 27 points from USGBC, or one more than necessary for the building to be certified. And these credits are generally easier to design into a project when it's new construction rather than a renovation.

"Because when you're designing from scratch, if you want something, you can design it in. If you're dealing with an existing situation, some of those elements and systems are already there and it could be cost-prohibitive to change them out," said Andy Ohlman, of Design Plus, who coordinated the certification process.

"For example, shell items. With a renovation, you typically have the building shell and structure and you're not going to change that," he added.

In addition to Steketee's, Design Plus has completed two other LEED-certified projects and has four more in progress. The firm has five LEED-accredited members on its staff.

Rockford Companies, which has four LEED-accredited employees, is currently working on 15 projects that are either certified or in the application process. The Grand RapidsArt Museum, the Davenport University W.A. Lettinga Campus and KeystoneCommunityChurch are just three. USGBC said Keystone was the world's first LEED-certified church.

One of the projects in the application process is the building addition and renovation that Rockford directed for the Alano Club of KentCounty at

1020 College Ave.
NW. Work began last September and ended recently with a grand re-opening ceremony. Construction was done in accordance with LEED requirements and the building addition and renovation means the club can host up to 20 more meetings each week to support those afflicted by alcohol dependency.

"As we move toward serving the community for another 40 years, our goal is to become the recovery hub for the community. Our community education, teen programming and meetings continue to gain attendance," said Lisa Gort, Alano Club executive director.

Filling the Steketee's building with tenants and then gaining LEED status are two accomplishments that once looked unattainable for what is, perhaps, the most vital building on Monroe Center. When the department store closed in 1998, the vacant building immediately became downtown's biggest concern and remained so for years.

Two attempts to fill the building failed in 2000 when the city decided not to locate the police department's administrative services there, and when Carrier Hotels decided not to follow through on creating a high-speed Internet technology center there.

Rockford Construction, a division of Rockford Companies, and SIBSCO LLC, a real estate investment firm owned by the Peter Secchia family, purchased Steketee's for $1.35 million in 1998. They then sold it to a group of investors headed by Ray Kisor of Commerce Realty. Rockford bought it back a few years later. Wheeler said the purchase price and renovation work would total about $14 million.

Blue Cross Blue Shield signed a 10-year lease on its space with Rockford Development and moved into the building roughly two years ago.    

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