Whitehall Tannery Project Is Under Way

July 21, 2007
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The former Whitehall Leather Co. on the east end of White Lake is being razed to make way for a proposed waterfront condominium project. Plans call for the phased construction of 200 condominiums along 3,000 feet of White Lake beachfront beginning next year.

Although deconstruction of the 350,000-square-foot tannery on the 33-acre site at 900 Lake Street is nearly complete, plans for the condo community are still fluid, said Bob Sorensen, president of corporate development at Eastbrook Homes and spokesman for the developer, Southshore Development LLC. Southshore is investing $50 million to bring the planned condo, restaurant and marina project to life.

The developers and Whitehall city officials held a groundbreaking ceremony on July 13 that marked the start of demolition. City Manager Scott Huebler said the hope is to have a condo model open by Sept. 8, 2008. The project’s working name is Tannery Bay, but that could change, Sorensen said. Investors in the Southshore Development project include the principals of Eastbrook Homes and Muskegon Attorney Tom Thornhill of Parmenter O’Toole law firm.  

“We’re working right now to come up with the architectural renderings and the proper presentation to the city, but we’re not quite there in terms of saying that this is exactly what the product mix and the layout will be,” Sorensen explained. “There’s an extensive amount of shoreline there, and we’re trying to make that site just an absolute showpiece for the city, which is why we’re taking the time to make sure it’s done properly.”

Once the investors put together their final plan, they’ll begin working with the city for all the necessary approvals, he said. The condos would be built in phases, but how many would be built in each phase had not been decided as of this writing. A sea wall has to be constructed on the site, and some seven feet of soil fill has to be added in some areas. Contractors recommend that soil fill areas be left to settle for a winter so that the snow load compacts them better. Since it’s uncertain when those processes will be completed, it’s difficult to establish benchmarks and timelines at this point, Sorensen explained.

A mix of attached condo styles are tentatively planned, such as more traditional, multi-storied units in combination with townhouses. There may be some detached condos or two-unit condos, if it looks like there’s a market demand for them, he said.

“Our own team has been working on the architectural design for quite a while with some input from a variety of people across the country,” Sorensen added. “We’re trying to find the perfect match for that site.”

The intention is to make it a “connected” community. The developers hope to include a common building, a pool, workout facility and restaurant on site. A marina with about 150 boat slips is also on the drawing board. The Hart-Montague Trail runs nearby the proposed project, and the developers would like to take advantage of that so condo tenants can access it conveniently, but Sorensen said they’re not 100 percent sure how the trail might be integrated into the development.

He said Thornhill broached the idea of the waterfront condo project and suggested Eastbrook Homes partner on it. Thornhill was familiar with the property because he had represented Genesco, the parent company of Whitehall Leather, in the past. White Hall Leather had been tanning leather on the site since 1866, and it was contaminated. Genesco was responsible for cleaning it up.  

“Over time we’ve worked with Tom on other projects. He was persistent in presenting this opportunity to us, and after a while we joined forces in talking about it,” Sorensen said. “It is a unique project and a large one, and we eventually saw the same potential that Tom did and jumped into it.”  

Southshore Development received $3.5 million in brownfield Single Business Tax credits from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. towards the project. White Hall City Manager Scott Huebler said that will carry over to any subsequent replacement of the SBT. He said the city of Whitehall is looking at investing $750,000 for public infrastructure improvements to upgrade water and sewer mains servicing the project area.

The state of Michigan awarded the city $1.9 million in grants and loans for “due care activities” that ensure the safety of the site during remediation and demolition efforts, and generally protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, the environment and natural resources. The city is also looking at borrowing $3.5 million through tax increment financing for due care activities above the $1.9 million mark; those monies will be repaid from the taxes generated on the site over about 15 years, Huebler noted.

“With any sizable development in a community, and with the demolition of a building that’s almost 150 years old, there are going to be questions and criticisms — and, perhaps, some disappointments,” Huebler acknowledged. “The developers have been meeting regularly with local citizens to address their concerns, as has the city. It’s been quite an involved process.”

Eastbrook Homes is a West Michigan residential builder and developer of planned communities. The company has built 13 residential communities throughout the region, among them Ada Moorings in southeast Grand Rapids, Arbor Hills in Grand Rapids Township, Bailey’s Grove in Kentwood, Cook’s Crossing in Byron Center, Lowing Woods in Jenison, Pine Meadows in West Olive and Cannon Farms in Cannon Township.     CQ

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