Construction, Economic Development, and Real Estate

Downtown developers move into fringe neighborhoods

Difficult church project in Heritage Hill is one example.

August 23, 2013
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Bethlehem Church
High occupancy rates in downtown housing is one of the reasons developers are moving to near-downtown neighborhoods for new projects. Photo by Chris Pastotnik

A flurry of downtown housing projects have streamed across the news the past few months, led by major apartment-complex developments from Brookstone Capital, Orion Construction, Rockford Construction and 616 Development.

“The speed at which projects are coming before us is quite remarkable,” said Kayem Dunn, vice chairwoman of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority.

At the same time, these well-known commercial developers, which normally build in the central business district, have announced smaller-scale projects for neighborhoods on downtown’s fringe.

Brookstone Capital has plans for State Street SE. Orion Construction is looking to put up two buildings in Eastown. Rockford Construction is set to begin a project on the west side. And 616 Development has begun demo work for 616 Lofts at Prospect, which is going into the former Bethlehem Church at 253 Prospect Ave. NE.

The church project is likely the most difficult of the four because trying to convert this place of worship into loft apartments poses two uncommon problems: One, it’s a church, and two, it’s a church in the historic Heritage Hill district.

Greg Metz, a partner with Ted Lott in Lott3Metz Architecture, is familiar with the problems. He has worked on the Bethlehem conversion for a handful of developers since 2005. Derek Coppess of 616 Development recruited Metz for the task because he was well aware of the difficulties the project presented.

“We started on this in 2005 and we have done four or five different schemes for four or five different ownership entities. I think, right there, that tells a story of how difficult it is to do. That alone is indicative that this is not a simple project,” said Metz.

Redesigning a building in a historic district is tough because of restrictions on how it can be altered. In this particular case, it’s even tougher because a church typically doesn’t have a lot of windows. The enclosed setting is intended to keep parishioners’ attention on the pastor and the service, and stained-glass windows do that by preventing those inside from seeing outs. Lack of windows isn’t a good situation for a single residence, let alone the 22 apartments 616 wants to develop.

On top of that, Metz said national guidelines for historic renovation don’t offer a blueprint on how to redesign churches with stained-glass windows and little interior light, so the architects and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission have to find their own way through this maze of darkness.

“HPC went down a path they had never gone down before, and we went down a path we never had gone down before. There’s not a lot of people that have gone down this path. That alone was difficult,” said Metz. “To the HPC’s credit, they were very good to work with.”

The first hurdle Metz and HPC had to clear was how to get regular windows in the building. That was a bone of contention, as Metz put it, because no one was certain whether a church building in a historic district must have stained-glass windows. Again, there are no standards to follow.

“What we ended up doing was we punched in windows in the stained glass. It was kind of a compromise and one that everybody was OK with. So we kept some of the stained glass and we got rid of some of it,” he said.

“All the stained glass getting removed is going to be put in a special crate and kept onsite. So if someone 30, 40 or 50 years down the road wants to do a full restoration, the original glass will still be there.”

Another difficulty is the open nature of the sanctuary, where a lot of space goes unused due to its height. When a firm like 616 invests $3 million into a project, as it is doing for this one, it needs to use as much available space as possible to pay for its investment.

“We basically ended up putting a second floor in the sanctuary. So instead of having a 60-foot-high space or whatever it is, we cut it in half. That helped a lot. One, it helped us get more units in. Two, it helped us modulate the space,” said Metz.

“We probably could have gotten another floor in, but we were getting at too much density as that point — the planning commission wasn’t going to allow us to have more units. … But there has to be enough, obviously, to work for a developer, and 616 is really incredible as they know how to make these difficult projects work.”

Once the major design issues were taken care of, another problem had to considered. Metz said some neighborhood residents weren’t fond of the potential for additional on-street parking that comes with an apartment complex. He said it was an issue because the on-street parking there is already tight, with college students and medical workers taking up a lot of the available spaces.

Even though 616 Lofts at Prospect will have a parking lot for those who live there, residents worried there might not be enough spaces in the lot for those who visit the building.

“They weren’t really against the project. They felt they already had a problem and we were going to exacerbate the problem more. That was a tough one to navigate,” said Metz.

“Luckily, we worked with the Heritage Hill board. They were incredible to work with because they kind of helped navigate the process with the neighbors and the developer. They were a good intermediary,” he added.

Board members reminded residents the parking problem was there before the project and was an issue better left to the neighborhood association to handle as that group was already working on it.

Despite not having guidelines to follow, 616 Development, the HPC and the Heritage Hill board worked things out.

“Did we get all the windows that we’d like? No, not really. On the other hand, I think we were able to get enough so the spaces will feel good and the uniqueness of being in a church just brings it to that next level,” said Metz.

So after years of designing and redesigning the Bethlehem Church into living spaces, Metz finally has put the project to bed.

“The upper four units in the sanctuary have 30-foot ceilings, and all the original beams are still there. This is going to be phenomenal spaces,” said Metz.

“If I was in my 20s, that is where I would want to be — just for the cool factor. It’s just going to blow people away when they see it. It’s just a phenomenal space and I can’t wait until it’s done.”

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