A risk taker, an innovator and an inspiration

February 17, 2009
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It’s an accomplishment very few have achieved, or ever are likely to.

But very few are like Ed De Vries.

2009 marks the 30th year that De Vries has officially been in the real estate industry. It was back in 1979 when he started his real estate brokerage firm, debuting it after he bought and restored a few classic, older homes in the Heritage Hill neighborhood of Grand Rapids.

Since then, De Vries has done some of the most respected renovations in and around the downtown district. Buildings such as Aldrich Place and Clear Water Place have been given new life because of his actions, bringing him respect and recognition from those within and outside the industry.

“He is always willing to give of himself and his time to help get things organized and make things happen. And he is willing to take on the tough projects,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, the nonprofit organization that promotes the Central Business District.

“A city has to look good to be able to attract people, and Ed knows how to make a building look good, from the renovation to the landscaping,” she added. “Ed has been an inspiration in what he has done.”

Evoy isn’t alone in her evaluation of De Vries. Developer Sam Cummings, who has renovated his share of downtown structures and now is a principal in CWD Real Estate Investments, described De Vries as a cooperative competitor and echoed much of Evoy’s sentiment.

“I have always been grateful, as a Grand Rapidian, to see the results of his hard work at creating lasting value for our community. From Aldrich Place to Clear Water Place, he and (his son) Mike have tackled projects that were at best difficult to accomplish, and have done it with a clear sense of direction — and I know something about that,” said Cummings.

“I think that this city is better for their place in it,” he said of the De Vries family.

And the city joined Cummings in thinking that, too.

Not too long ago, the Neighborhood Business Alliance awarded De Vries its top award for individuals: the John H. Logie Neighborhood Business Champion Award. De Vries was given the honor for his commercial and residential renovations and his staunch support of business in the city.

“Ed has many beautiful buildings to his credit, in several business districts, including Landmark Lofts, 800 Monroe and the Aldrich Place Building,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. “Ed also gives generously of his time to his business association, Monroe North.”

“Ed has been an inspiration with his work in greening and beautification. Planting in an urban environment is not easy, and Ed has led the way with his work in the Monroe North area, both with his company’s projects and with the work he’s doing with the business association,” said Evoy.

De Vries owns De Vries Companies, a firm that develops, builds, manages and brokers. His renovation work has earned him a slew of awards for facades, landscaping, design and reuse. One highlight award came years ago when the National Park Service added Aldrich Place, a four-story office and retail building at 80 Ottawa Ave. NW, to the National Register of Historic Places.

Those who know De Vries also know that he enjoys what he does, and that enjoyment has contributed to his longevity in an industry that can easily shorten a person’s career and shatter someone’s dreams without any notice. But the key to his staying power isn’t only found in his finished products.

“I think it’s involvement with people in all different aspects of what we do — from the customer to what we do working with different government officials, and basically all the relationships that we have had an opportunity to establish,” said De Vries of what he likes most about what he does.

“The other part is using our imagination in trying to put things together, and then putting a team of people together that use their imaginations and their talents. Everything that we do is really a team approach.”

That imagination was never more present than when De Vries took on the city’s old water filtration plant as a reclamation project. The 40,000-square-foot building sat vacant from 1992 until a few years ago when he turned the oddly shaped structure at 1430 Monroe Ave. NW into an award-winning office and residential complex that also is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Former three-term Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie has been a friend of De Vries for the better part of four decades. Crucial to their relationship is that they share a keen fondness for the historical preservation of buildings. Three decades ago, Logie, De Vries and others in the then-fledgling Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association legally tried to stop a church from demolishing two Crescent Street homes for a parking lot. They lost that case at the state appellate level.

“But thanks to Ed De Vries, when that case was published in the Court of Appeals records in 1973, it gave every preservation society in Michigan standing to sue. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case involving the effort to save Grand Central Station in New York, decided the same thing for the whole country,” said Logie, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd.

Logie also mentioned De Vries’ willingness to take on tough projects.  He said De Vries took a major risk when he decided to restore a building called the Comstock, which was built in the mid-1870s and served as a general office and factory for a sash-and-door maker. De Vries turned it into a Chicago-style loft condominium building called Landmark Lofts, and it has become a landmark at the corner of Monroe and Sixth Street.

“He took a huge gamble but it has paid off, not just for his business but as a catalyst for the whole neighborhood. Adaptive reuse is an article of faith among preservationists. He accepted the huge challenge of finding a way to do the same things for the city’s 1916 water filtration plant,” said Logie.

“It takes a strong, creative mind to visualize what a building with essentially no floors can become. That, too, is now a success,” he said of Clear Water Place.

“That is Ed De Vries and now his son, Mike. We need our risk takers. I am proud to call them friends — not just mine, but friends of historic reuse and good friends to the city, preserving the wonderful history and fabric of the community,” Logie added.

Even with 30 years of commercial and residential real estate under his belt, De Vries isn’t anywhere near ready to call it quits. Mike De Vries told CQ that the firm has a few projects up its sleeve that it will likely be rolling out later this year. As for his dad …

“When I think about my dad,” he said, “what really comes to my mind is that his passions are improving the community and trying to help other people.”

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