First Companies adds downtown to its focus
First Companies has been around since 1964, and over those years the company has developed a solid reputation as a suburban property developer, a position that was exemplified in 2007 when First sold five fully leased industrial buildings with 237,000 total square feet to a San Francisco investment firm.
A few months later, First Companies sold 16 industrial, multi-tenant buildings with about 480,000 feet largely located in the area’s suburbs to a Newport Beach, Calif., investment firm. Most of that square footage was leased.
But recently First Companies, a local construction, real estate, development and property management firm, has turned its attention to older, even historic, buildings in downtown Grand Rapids.
“For a good chunk of our history we’ve developed in suburban areas, which have been very good,” said Jeff Baker, president of First Companies. “But when you look at the downtown Grand Rapids market, you see the cranes, the development going on, the infrastructure for major development investments for health care and hospitals. It’s really been neat to see what’s going on there, and you want to be a part of it. That’s kind of driven us down there, and we feel like that’s going to be a good investment for quite a while,” he added.
The firm, doing business as 140 Monroe Ventures LLC, bought the third floor of 140 Monroe Center, which had been repossessed by the mortgage lender, and renovated it for office space.
“The challenge was looking at the project and understanding there was a great potential for a reuse of the building and to work with the bank in getting (the sale) finalized. The neat thing about that whole project is it’s in a great location, as it overlooks Rosa Parks Circle and is kind of at the center of downtown,” said Baker.
“The minute I saw it, I understood it was a great opportunity for us to invest again in the downtown area in a neat building.”
The floor has 8,200 square feet; First Companies renovated the space so it could serve more than a single tenant. The level’s first tenant, The Charter Group, took 3,900 square feet. The firm, which advises its clients on mergers and acquisitions, had been looking for a more contemporary and innovative home since at least last spring; it approached First Companies after it acquired the vacant space earlier this year.
“Our former space was too small, too tired and too institutional. We needed a location that was modern, inventive and flexible, but still in a vital part of downtown, where our team is invested,” said John Kerschen, owner of The Charter Group and managing director of the Michigan Accelerator Fund I, which is also a tenant there. “There’s nothing like being in the heart of the city.”
Baker said the remaining space is available and should make an interesting home for another company, or maybe two.
Baker also joined Jon Blair and Matt Steigenga to buy the Rood Building, a historic structure at 139 Pearl St. NW. The 138-year-old building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Its ground floor has been home to Flanagan’s Irish Pub since 1981. The trio, doing business as Rood Sixty North LLC, renovated the three upper levels into 15 loft-style apartments. First Companies did the restoration work. City commissioners designated the Rood Building as being in a historic district in August.
“We just finished that project up and that turned out really cool. We partnered with a group called 616 Lofts on the residential side of it, and the 15 apartments are filled,” said Baker.
616 Lofts is a boutique real estate and development firm that concentrates its efforts on downtown properties and is expected to do more work with First Companies. Derek Coppess started 616 Lofts in 2010, seven years after he founded the Coppess Group in 2003.
Despite shifting its attention to the urban core, First Properties hasn’t abandoned the suburban market. The firm still has dozens of listings of industrial, retail and office properties in that locale and recently leased a 4,950-square-foot suite at 4039 40th St. SE in Kentwood to Vantaura Energy Systems LLC.