Focus, Construction, and Real Estate

Orion Construction heads to Eastown

Company needs city approval to build 36 apartments in two buildings.

September 6, 2013
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Orion Construction heads to Eastown
The proposed Eastown Flats still needs a variance from the city to forgo retail on the ground floors of the buildings. Courtesy Integrated Architecture

About the time Orion Construction begins work on Arena Place in downtown, the firm also hopes to start construction on two residential-only buildings in Eastown.

Both projects are expected to get underway in December.

The two apartment buildings will be called Eastown Flats and will be across the street from each other. One will be a three-story, 20-unit structure at 1400 Wealthy St. SE. The other also will be three stories, but will have 16 units on a smaller footprint at 1415 Wealthy St. SE.

Eastown Flats will be a mixture of studios and one- and two-bedrooms, and each resident will have an off-street parking space on the grounds. The market-rate apartments will be of high quality, and each building will have an elevator, a basement for storage, a front porch and balconies. Construction will follow green guidelines.

“These things are really going to improve the neighborhood,” said John Wheeler, director of business development for Orion Construction.

The buildings will have from 3,500 to 4,000 square feet per floor and an urban contemporary design with solid masonry exteriors. Both sites will have water-retention systems and recycling centers.

Integrated Architecture designed Eastown Flats.

“We’re making the buildings so there is no reason for anybody not to rent from us. We’re putting in a great amenities package,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler told the Business Journal he has had his eye on the locations for about 20 years but had to find the right level of density to make the project work.

“I have pretty tight criteria before I’ll look at something when I go into making a major impact on a neighborhood,” he said. “This is something that fits all the criteria.”

Wheeler also said he had to determine whether there was a need for more housing in Eastown, and he came to the conclusion the need does exist.

One thing that will be different about Eastown Flats is neither building will offer retail space on the first floors. Right now, the city’s requirement calls for ground-floor retail because the parcels are in a mixed-use commercial zone. Orion will need the city to grant the project a special-use variance before it can go forward as planned.

“We’ve done our homework and, economically, it’s not viable to have retail on the first floor. The project won’t work. These are not real big buildings,” said Wheeler. “The way these are designed and the way we see the impact for the neighborhood is to keep everything residential, like everything that is around it.

“We’ve had great support from the city’s staff saying that’s what they think, too.”

The city’s planning commission approved the project and recommended the city commission do the same. If city commissioners approve it, Orion will go back to city planners for the variance that will exempt the project from having retail. “There just isn’t a market there for it,” said Wheeler.

“We’d like to be in the ground in December. So we have the city commission meeting in September; we have the planning commission in October,” he added.

Orion and Wheeler are the project’s developers and contractors. It’s the same roles they’re filling for Arena Place, which will offer market-rate apartments, office suites and retail space on a surface lot along Ottawa Avenue NW at Weston Street near Van Andel Arena. The $28 million project will also have underground and surface parking. Orion bought the lot from the Downtown Development Authority.

The company also has purchased both Eastown parcels, having recently closed on the second property. A former car wash is on one of the sites, while the other is a parking lot.

“We have a partnership in place and we’ll be going out to talk to lenders,” said Wheeler. “There is no public money coming into it, no subsidies. It’s just market rate, solid investment properties that we plan on holding on to for a very long time.”

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