It's A Lee Family Affair

July 21, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Lees might be the very first family in the city’s history to renovate a commercial building together and then lease it to members of the family.

Whether that’s an accurate statement or not, this is the first time the Lees have undertaken such a project as a family, which adds another dimension to the definition of family values.

Arnold, Rachel, Paul and Jessica Lee are getting ready to make improvements to a two-story structure at 648 Wealthy St. SE. Arnold Lee owns the building and the development company, Good Earth Properties. Rachel Lee is the project manager for Good Earth, after doing similar real estate work the past few years for Bazzani Associates.

Paul and Jessica Lee are husband and wife and will be occupying two of the building’s three spaces. They will have the entire lower floor for their new gastro pub, the Winchester on Wealthy, and one of the second floor apartments. An aunt and uncle will rent the other second-floor apartment.

The 4,000-square-foot building opened as a meat market about a century ago, but has been best known for being the home of Somerdyk Plumbing. It was a structure the family chose after a lengthy search.

“We’ve been looking for a location for this establishment for quite a while. We were originally focused on the downtown area. But because my heart is in Uptown, I was really encouraging them to take a look at that area. It’s also cheaper than downtown,” said Rachel Lee.

“Uptown” is actually four separate southeast side business districts that have come together to promote each other as one. East Fulton, East Hills, Eastown and Wealthy Street make up Uptown, which has applied for technical assistance from the Cool Cities Michigan Main Street Program and has enlisted Neighborhood Ventures to help put together an application for a Corridor Improvement District that would go to the city and then the state. Rachel Lee has been part of those efforts, having served as an Uptown volunteer for more than two years.

“I promoted the building to my father (Arnold) as a sound investment,” she said. “For me, personally, this is just great. I’ve been working in this area for so long and finally having something there in my family makes all those years worth it to me.”

The Lees will restore the building’s façade, which currently has an outdated urban-renewal look that was popular 40 years ago. They plan on matching the new exterior as closely as they can to the original one.

The project also calls for installing large windows, a transom, a recessed doorway and an exterior stairwell. An outdoor café and a shuffleboard court will be added. The interior has been gutted and will be completely redone. Bazzani Associates will do the work.

The Winchester on Wealthy is being billed as a neighborhood gastro pub with a full-service menu and bar. It will seat 150 patrons, with room for 47 on an outdoor patio. The Lees took a trip to London to scout the city’s famous taverns and gastro pubs and brought back with them the best of what they saw.

“We wanted to get a first-hand feel for how those pubs were connected with the neighborhoods. That was another reason why Wealthy was such a great spot for us, because there is a lot of opportunity for us on Wealthy Street,” Rachel said.

“I believe the section of Wealthy between Eastern and Union is the next section to pop. We’re very excited about that,” she added.

Paul Lee said he got the itch to open his own pub after managing O’Toole’s Public House at 448 Bridge St. NW. At first he said he and his wife wanted to own a “little pub” that had typical “bar food” like burgers. But after a while, their initial idea grew into more of a gastro-type pub.

“So we want to do a lot of sharing-type plates for appetizers, gourmet sandwiches, entrée-type salads and, actually, some gourmet-type burgers. (The idea) kind of evolved with the building. As we worked on the building, we had to make constant changes. We went from a small kitchen to a larger full-sized kitchen, and that kind of changed our menu,” he said.

Construction is expected to begin in earnest next week, as Paul said the demo work is done. He and Jessica hope to open their pub in October, possibly November at the latest.

“This is our first project for the Winchester and the renovation of the two dwelling units above. We also own the vacant property that’s adjacent to this property. As soon as we get this project finished, we’re definitely excited to see what other opportunities we can have in this area,” said Rachel.

The Lees are hoping that their renovation and the opening of the Winchester on Wealthy will be catalysts for further development in the neighborhood.

“That section of Wealthy Street still has some of the buildings from that urban renewal era,” said Rachel. “We’re hoping that by restoring the façade and by putting this establishment in there, it’s going to interest other property owners to start looking at their properties, too.”

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