LEED Gold building getting national award

May 31, 2009
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Excellence is a term that local leaders have used for years to describe the projects that Dwelling Place has produced, most recently the nonprofit developer’s award-winning and trend-setting Avenue for the Arts on South Division in the Heartside Business District.

What local leaders have known for decades will become known across the country next week when the Affordable Tax Credit Coalition presents the Charles L. Edson Tax Credit Excellence Award to Dwelling Place for Verne Barry Place at a luncheon ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 10.

The national award is presented to the most outstanding housing projects, financed at least partly with tax credits, in six categories, and distinguishes the best of those nominations in affordable, rental housing development. Verne Barry Place, a LEED-certified building at the Gold level, is receiving the excellence award in the urban category.

“We are proud to receive this national recognition. It affirms our belief that well-designed, mixed-income and mixed-use buildings are an essential ingredient to creating healthy and vibrant urban neighborhoods,” said Dennis Sturtevant, Dwelling Place CEO.

Verne Barry Place, named in honor of the late and highly respected businessman and chairman of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, is the result of new construction and a renovation to the former Dwelling Place Inn. At 60 S. Division Ave., the building offers 116 apartments and commercial space.

Most of those units provide an affordable home and support services for homeless individuals with disabilities. Nine of the apartments, though, are large, market-rate, live-work spaces that are attracting artists and what Dwelling Place calls “urban pioneers” to the area that has rapidly become the arts-and-culture district of downtown.

But all this didn’t happen overnight. It took Dwelling Place the better part of four years to move Verne Barry Place from its inception to its opening last July.

“I think we did our first tax credit in 2004,” said Jarrett DeWyse, director of housing development for Dwelling Place.

Michele McIsaac, Dwelling Place director of fund development, told the Business Journal that the construction portion alone took two years to complete. The work had to overcome a change that was made 70 years ago to the four structures that made up the Dwelling Place Inn.

“When South Division was widened in the 1930s, they cut off part of the buildings on the east side of the street. So when we began to take apart some of the walls inside, we found that the structural issues were mammoth,” said DeWyse.

“It was so bad that we had to make a second application for tax credits to cover the expense. It started out as a $12 million project and ended up at $19 million.”

DeWyse said the community responded magnificently to what seemed then as a barrier to construction. Thirty individuals and families came to the rescue by contributing $1.2 million to the project. On top of that philanthropic effort, the Holiday Inn Hotel in Kalamazoo and Steelcase Inc. donated furniture.

“People came to help us out in what I would say was a six- to eight-week period,” she said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city of Grand Rapids, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the city’s DDA and National City Bank, now PNC Bank, and Charter One Bank provided financing for the project. 

More than $14 million worth of state and federal historic, brownfield and low-income housing tax credits also played a major financial role in getting the project done.

“Verne Barry Place is a beacon of light and a ‘good news’ story in the midst of sobering economic news in our nation,” said Keith Molin, MSHDA executive director.

“It is a project that expands the Grand Rapids’ capacity to house the homeless while at the same time providing an economic boost that helps revitalize the city’s South Division Avenue,” said Joseph Hagen, president and CEO of the National Equity Fund.

Hagen and the Chicago-based NEF, a limited partner in the project, nominated Verne Barry Place for the national award.

Hagen also called the project an important “green development,” as over 20 percent of the building materials had a high-recyclable content and all construction waste was recycled. The building has a live, vegetative roof, a high-efficiency heat recovery system, motion-sensor lighting in all apartments and common areas, large windows and glass-block walls that allow plenty of natural light to enter the structure.

MSHDA reported that Verne Barry Place is the very first LEED Gold certified, multi-unit affordable housing development in the state. Brian Winklemann, of DTS Winklemann LLC, was the project’s lead architect. Pioneer Construction Co. managed the renovation work and new construction for Dwelling Place.

Keys features of the finished product include an open-air interior courtyard, a two-level parking deck, a large wall mural that was created by 36 Heartside residents, a glass connector and a seating area that also serves as a functional piece of art work produced by a local artist.

Despite the glitter that comes from LEED Gold and a prestigious national award, the real story behind Verne Barry Place might be found in the people who made the project a reality. And many of those individuals chose to remain anonymous.

“One of the difficulties of the project was that the historic buildings that were going to be renovated were occupied,” said DeWyse. “So the new building was completed and then in three days we moved 72 people over to the new building. We had volunteers from local churches and colleges that helped us.”

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