Bringing Back A Neighborhood

February 7, 2008
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No one is certain if Robert Israels played with building blocks as a child growing up in a largely blue-collar area on the city’s near northwest side. But today everyone familiar with the neighborhood can see for themselves that, as an adult, Israels isn’t playing at all.

Two of his renovations that are currently under way will finish this year and two more will get started later this year, as Israels continues to redevelop his old neighborhood, grow the campus for his world-renowned design business, and bring new jobs to those blocks.

By the time work is completed, the CEO and president of Israels Designs for Living will have invested approximately $32 million in renovation projects along Seward Avenue NW between Third and Seventh streets, just northwest of downtown. Israels hopes that at least 150 new jobs are generated from tenants that will occupy his renovated structures.

City Economic Development Director Kara Wood said those projects could bring as many as 500 new jobs to Grand Rapids, and that’s why city commissioners extended the Renaissance Zone designation for four of the five buildings Israels is revitalizing.

“I’ve tried to explain to the city of Grand Rapids and others that if we can build a better product and can rent it at a less expensive price per square foot, people from all over the United States will look at coming here,” he said.

“That’s what I’ve been doing in marketing this, and I’m finding out that people are saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t such a bad place to get employment. There are good people here, and we can keep our overhead down.’ That’s been kind of the secret of my success.”

So far, Israels has been fairly successful in lining up tenants for the two buildings he will finish this year. Two companies are interested in the Aslan Building at 600 Seventh St. NW, and he is close to having four of the five floors in the South Widdicomb Building at 600 Fifth St. NW leased. He also has tenants interested in the two buildings he will begin to renovate this year.

But his success has come at a cost — like more than a few sleepless nights.

“Boy, is this ever scary, though. It’s hard to get financing on any of these things until you get them finished. Nobody wants to write a loan on these buildings until they’re fully occupied or whatever. So it’s constantly a self-financed ordeal. It’s millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars that just keep going out.

“So it’s a leap of faith, but it’s worth it,” he said.

It’s that faith that has led him to renovate two additional buildings. One is the former Enterprise Iron and Metal Co. building at 528 Fourth St. NW, a 9,000-square-foot, century-old structure on the southeast corner of Fourth and Seward. Israels said work will start on the building this spring.

“It’s absolutely a beautiful little building,” he said.

So far, Israels said he has spent a “good five figures” to clean the former scrap yard that was adjacent to the building, a process that required him to dig down a dozen feet and then haul the soil to approved landfills. He then brought in clean soil to fill the hole that stretched over half the property.

“We’ve actually gotten all the contamination out of there, and that was No. 1 in my book: How do we get this contamination out of here? We didn’t apply for any brownfields or anything because it would have taken way too long. But I could not allow that contamination in the neighborhood any longer. It was bad,” he said.

Israels has turned the former scrap yard into a parking lot, and now he wants to convert the building into usable space. The brick has been cleaned and the roof has new clay tiles, so it looks like it did when the building opened in the 1890s as a railroad depot.

“It’s just a slick little building,” he said. “Who knows what we’re going to end up with there, but we shouldn’t have any problem finding a good tenant for it that will generate some nice jobs.”

Israels said an apparel manufacturer is interested in leasing space in the building.

Israels will also renovate the former Drueke Game Co. building at 601 Third St. NW, a block south of the Enterprise structure on the northwest corner of Third and Seward. He plans to add three floors to the one-story portion of the building and one level to the three-story portion, and then convert the entire structure for retail use. Work on the building should start soon.

“I’m not creating a new look. I like to re-create what was there and then enhance it a little bit,” he said of all his projects.

Israels is also renovating the South Widdicomb Building at 600 Fifth St. NW. Work on that five-story structure is expected to finish in mid-August, but the building’s first tenant could very well begin operating from there this month.

“The first tenant, which is taking two floors of the building — and I can’t divulge who it is — will be moving in on Jan. 31st,” he said in December.

“We have negotiated to represent the balance of all the high-end, American-made furniture companies on the fourth floor of the South building. We have three independent design corporations — one is coming from out of state — who are going to be on the fourth floor of that building,” he added.

The South Widdicomb Building was once a John Widdicomb Co. furniture factory, a four-story building with a total of 120,000 square feet that sits across Fifth Street from the World Trade Center at 501 Fifth St. NW. Part of the renovation project involves adding a fifth floor to the structure so it matches up with the Trade Center, the firm’s headquarters.

“We’ve added about 39,000 square feet of additional space to (the South building). So we have the fourth floor and the first and the second floors occupied. We have a tentative arrangement with a very large group of people, again from outside the city of Grand Rapids, that are wanting to take the top floor completely,” said Israels.

“So it only leaves me with one floor that will not be totally occupied.”

Post Associates Inc. designed the Drueke, the Enterprise and the South Widdicomb projects. Erhardt Construction Co. is directing all three renovations. Both firms are based in Grand Rapids and regularly work with Israels on his projects.

But perhaps Israels’ favorite project of the five is his Aslan Building. He originally planned to install residential units on the second and third floors. But since commercial firms began inquiring about the building, he now is leaning toward creating some commercial space.

“It’s actually designed so it can go either way. We’ve actually got all the plumbing and everything in to create the individual work-at-home program in there, and at that point we were really planning on doing that. But this generates a better income base for the city and also promotes something we all need, which is jobs,” he said.

“We made a multi-use of every square foot in that building, so if at any time something wouldn’t work, we could always reuse the building for another type of operation.”

There will be at least one residence in the Aslan, and it will be an unusual one that Israels will own. He plans to build a very large apartment and make it available for fundraising events and to his business clients who visit the World Trade Center nearby.

The apartment will have 8,900 square feet of space and rise five floors, with the last three levels being in a clock tower that sits on top of the northeast corner of the building. The residence has all the earmarks of being something very special.

“In the master bedroom, we have a custom bed that we manufactured for some of our clients in the Middle East, which is 14 feet wide and 7 feet long. So I’ll have a 14-foot-wide bed up there, 7 feet long — which will overlook the whole city while you’re in bed,” he said with a laugh.

The 1,000-square-foot bedroom is on the fifth story of the building, or third level of the clock tower. One floor below is the bathroom, also 1,000 square feet, and below that on the third floor is an office and on the second floor is a kitchen. The ground floor contains the living room and an area for entertaining guests, with a bar that will stretch for 39 feet. Just below the ground floor is the apartment’s energy center.

Israels said the work is being done on a “green” basis, but added that he wouldn’t be applying for certification.

“Those are the kind of things that are intriguing. We’ve got some real interesting and innovative ideas that are going to be there. It’s going to be very unique and very high style in design. And we’re going to be featuring Grand Rapids furniture there.”

Israels is serving as the general contractor for the work on the Aslan, a name he gave the building after reading “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis, to his grandkids. Aslan is the name of the lion in the children’s story. The work involves adding a third floor to the building’s original two stories and retaining the structure’s original timbers.

But for Israels, the projects are about more than restoring old buildings. He wants to bring people and jobs back into his little corner of the world, an effort that is rapidly taking shape to the delight of many on the west side. Being able to rebuild his neighborhood is the real motive behind his investment of money, time and effort.

“I love the history of this neighborhood. It is a working-class neighborhood, but the people always had class. A lot of my friends’ mothers and dads went to work in the furniture factories,” he said of the people with whom he grew up.

“They were building furniture. They were making interesting products. There was a lot of good stuff going on in this neighborhood. We had a lot of fun and I want the neighborhood to be like that again.” CQX

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