Clear Water A Clear Winner

July 23, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Renovating an older industrial building by historical standards for other uses presents challenges not found in new construction, and clearing those obstacles begins at the project’s design stage.

Cornerstone Architects, known throughout the state for its renovation work, took on those challenges for the former city-owned water filtration plant that Ed De Vries Properties bought four years ago.

The plant at 1430 Monroe Ave. NW was built after voters approved a $395,000 bond package in 1910, and the facility was enlarged in the 1920s and 1930s. The bonded red brick Mediterranean-style structure has about 65,000 total square feet. Roughly 50,000 square feet are in the main building. The two round towers that flank the north and south sides of the main building have another 15,000 square feet and feature 30-foot-high ceilings.

Now known as Clear Water Place, the building is listed in the National Historic Registry and in the state’s Register of Historic Sites.

“Because it’s a historic building, the exterior is a significant part,” said Heather DeKorte, an associate architect with Cornerstone. “But a lot of times the interior also has to be considered when you’re thinking historically. So the implications that come into play there is a balance.”

DeKorte did the hands-on design work for De Vries Properties and the structure now offers office space and luxury apartments just north of Leonard Street in the nearly tax-free Renaissance Zone. The design and renovation work earned De Vries Properties the 2007 Outstanding Historic Preservation Award from the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission earlier this year.

The initial design challenge DeKorte faced was that the building sat vacant for a few decades after the city shut down operations there, and it wasn’t heated very well during the cold season.

“One of the biggest challenges with a lot of these industrial sites like this one is that they’ve been vacant. So you go into this building and, for the most part, the maintenance hasn’t been there, which creates a lot of structural and other finish-type issues that you need to resolve. On this particular project, there were some structural issues that needed to be stabilized,” she said.

“Some areas of the exterior masonry were a little tenuous, so we had to kind of rebuild a few areas to get them back where we were comfortable with them.”

On top of that, the terra-cotta tiled roof leaked in a few places. DeKorte said because the roof was installed on a substrate-type frame, all the tiles had to be removed to fix the leaks.

“Then when the substrate was exposed, they could repair the substrate and do it a little more to today’s standards to make sure there was air ventilation. Then we put the old tiles back on. But, of course, once you take off the tiles, you break a few,” she said.

De Vries Properties found some replacement tiles and also had some tiles made for the roof. The firm also replaced all the windows with historic matches.

“The roof is a huge part of the building. The owner pulled out all the stops to make it done right, and it really shows. But with historic material like that, it takes a little more specialized knowledge than some of the newer constructions would find,” said DeKorte.

As for the interior, DeKorte had to divide it up before she could design the spaces.

“The interior and the exterior are a little more tied together here because the building is historic. The interior, as it was more of an industrial space, was very wide open. One of the first things you have to do is realize that there isn’t one tenant that can use all this space. So we kind of had to break it up into more realistic sizes for people to come in,” she said.

“But in order to break that up, we had to have a lot of coordination with the National Park Service. They’re the ones that oversee the whole historic aspect of a building. There was a lot of coordination and compromise to get them to be happy with the fact that we were splitting the building up in smaller pieces. In their mind, it should have stayed wide open forever.”

But the park service wasn’t the only happy group. The Historic Preservation Commission was obviously pleased with the result. And, of course, De Vries Properties is excited with the final outcome. Mike De Vries, who works with his father, Ed, at De Vries Properties, told the Business Journal that most of Clear Water Place has been leased.

De Vries said a 10,000-square-foot space is available in the main building, along with a few smaller spaces that range from 1,800 to 4,000 square feet. Four of the five apartments have been rented, and the De Vries are thinking of adding a sixth unit. They’re also toying with the idea of leasing the space in the two towers.

“Those could be great offices, retail or live-work units. Those are really unique buildings,” said Mike De Vries. “We might do one more apartment that would be really unique, but we’re waiting on that.

“We’re getting there,” he said of all the space they’ve leased. “I’d like to be 100 percent.”

Clear Water Place has come a long way: from an empty industrial building to an active setting where people can live and work. But before it could reach that considerable status, the building first had to be thought of in much smaller terms.

“The sheer scale of the building is what made most of these things daunting. There was so much of it. You just stand back and say, ‘Oh my gosh. There are a lot of windows and a lot of roof,’” said DeKorte. “It definitely needed to be broken up into bite-size pieces.”    

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