Difficult downtown project has a silver lining

August 5, 2010
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Even though he chuckled after he spoke, he wasn’t really being funny. It was more a laugh of relief when CWD Real Estate Investments Principal Sam Cummings said what he liked the most about his latest project is that “it’s there.”

That project is The Gallery on Fulton.

“It was a difficult thing to pull off. It was really an extremely challenging project on a lot of different fronts: fitting all of the functions on that small, 40,000-square-foot site and constructing it through a very uncertain time,” said Cummings.

Cummings is referring to a time that began in the summer of 2007, when the nation’s housing market began to fall under the weight of too many unsecured, subprime mortgages, which made getting financing for a residential project nearly impossible. But a financing deal was secured for the project in 2008, just months before the housing crisis nearly brought down the country’s financial market and the banks quit lending. A portion of the financing came from the Downtown Development Authority.

Cummings first proposed a project for the Gallery site in 2005 — back when Susan Shannon was the city’s economic development director and George Heartwell was in his first term as mayor of Grand Rapids.

“The construction actually took less time than it did to get it to construction,” he said of the 14 months it took to build the development.

The Gallery on Fulton
Who:
CWD Real Estate Investments, RSC & Associates, and Triangle Associates
What: A 12-story building that houses the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and 56 luxury apartments
When: Opening in September
Where: 2 W. Fulton St. at Division Avenue
Why: After a long journey, it’s almost there.

“Now, the silver lining of that was, when we actually did break ground and did start construction, we had been through so much design development and we had advanced our engineering and drawings to such a point that the delivery of the building was extraordinary,” said Cummings.

“There were an extremely low number of change orders. In terms of a dollar volume, the deviation from budget was miniscule for a project of this caliber. The biggest change order was a voluntary addition, which was something we didn’t have in the original budget, and that was the roof deck — which is absolutely an extraordinary feature,” he added.

The Gallery was developed and built by Two West Fulton LLC, which is an affiliation between CWD Real Estate Investments, RSC & Associates and Triangle Associates. The project cost roughly $34 million to construct. About $24 million was spent on the building and around $10 million went to the 250-space parking ramp, which the city’s Parking Services Department is buying from the development firm. Cummings said they were able to deliver the ramp to the city “significantly under budget.”

The Gallery rises a dozen stories above street level at the southwest corner of Fulton Street and Division Avenue. Its official address is 2 W. Fulton. The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, currently at 41 Sheldon Ave. SW, will occupy floors 1 through 5, and will include multiple art galleries and event spaces, a 200-seat film studio, a performing arts theater, a ceramic studio and more, including an outdoor terrace.

Floors 6 through 12 are home to 56 luxury apartments that offer 9-foot-high ceilings, free wireless Internet access and lots of natural light. The apartments come in 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom versions. All the studio apartments are leased. Cummings said if he could turn back the project’s clock, he would have added more studios into the mix. He said 15 apartments have been pre-leased, adding that Tamara Beel, who handles requests for leasing information, gets about 20 inquiries a day.

Cummings said the first residents will move in Sept. 1, and the build-out for the first phase of UICA’s move from Sheldon Avenue to the new structure is underway.

“Their occupancy is going to be phased, but I don’t have all of those dates yet. We’re working right now on what we’re trying to accomplish for them for this year relative to ArtPrize and how the balance of their occupancy is going to work. We do not have that set in stone,” he said.

Throughout the five years it took to get the Gallery completed, Cummings said city officials were great to work with. “We’ve always been upfront and honest with the city and with all of our partners, frankly, and I just think that goes a long way. If you trust the people you’re working with, it really makes things a hell of a lot easier.”

Besides being a partner in Two West Fulton, Triangle Associates also managed the construction project. Built Form, an architectural firm based in Chicago, designed the Gallery on Fulton.

Cummings said the Gallery “plugs a hole” in a key section of downtown that many consider the gateway to the sector.

“Having that market-rate building there on that corner, which is the center of our city from a boundary perspective, says a lot. And making that connection with the Avenue of the Arts on South Division and with the art museum located where it is, having the UICA located squarely between them is a really natural transition point and is extremely well connected from a pedestrian point,” he said.

“And it’s a strikingly modern building, which we don’t have enough of, frankly. It’s not very ‘safe,’ in terms of architectural design, and people love it. People that come here from out-of-town absolutely love that building.”

Despite the challenges in getting it done, Cummings is pleased with the Gallery. He said the partners worked hard, stayed within budget without sacrificing quality, and got as much as they possibly could from a top-notch group of subcontractors for their investment.

“It was sort of a perfect storm,” he said. “We went through an extremely challenging financial market. But with the very capable assistance of Triangle (Associates), we were able to buy out the job very efficiently.”

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