Real Estate

GR firm among honorees at UM/ULI Forum

Volkers Group’s success in selling The Fitzgerald took Sales/Lease of the Year.

November 1, 2013
| By Pete Daly |
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Steve Volkers of the Steve Volkers Group in Grand Rapids, who successfully got the condos selling at the redeveloped Grand Rapids YMCA building, will be honored at the 27th Annual UM/ULI Real Estate Forum at the Lansing Center Nov. 20-21.

Volkers will receive the top award for Sale/Lease of the Year for his success in selling remaining vacant units at The Fitzgerald, 27 Library St. NE. The building was the original Downtown Y, built in 1915 and converted to 39 luxury condos. The project was completed in September 2008, just as the worst recession in decades was setting in and the U.S. real estate market was crashing. Volkers got on board in 2011 and was able to lease the rest of the units.

Two other top Michigan Real Estate Excellence awards to be presented at the UM/ULI Forum are:

  • The Real Estate Achievement Award to Kathy Makino-Leipsitz of Shelborne Development Co. for two affordable housing redevelopments in Detroit: Chalmers Square and Palmer Park Square.
  • The Development/Redevelopment of the Year to Kyle Westberg of West Construction Services for the Lafayette Place Lofts in Pontiac.

Thomas Wackerman of ASTI Environmental, current chairman of the UM/ULI Real Estate Forum, said the issue UM/ULI judges considered regarding The Fitzgerald condos was “the fact that (Volkers) was able to take this project, which had been floundering, totally reposition it, and get it to work.”

“He was able to change the (sales and marketing) strategy so that it worked,” added Wackerman.

Volkers was nominated for the award by Nick Koster, vice president of operations at CWD Real Estate Investment in Grand Rapids. The renovation of the former Y building was designed by Cornerstone Architects and the general contractor was Pioneer Construction.

Because of the impact of the recession, seven of 18 preconstruction sales contracts at The Fitzgerald went into default, leaving the developer with several customized and expensive units with no buyer — as well as the remaining speculative units, according to UM/ULI paperwork on each application.

The shortage of sales revenue at the outset created a variety of financing challenges and forced the developer to rent several units to generate cash flow to pay property taxes and condominium association expenses. The UM/ULI documents state that, following the failure of several different sales teams to gain any traction, the Steve Volkers Group was hired in February 2011 to take over sales. A new strategy for selling the remaining condos resulted in their sale in just under two years, far exceeding the market in both velocity and sales price per square foot.

Volkers told the Business Journal that, being a residential sales agent, he was “overwhelmed” by the award. “I’m not a broker and I’m not a commercial developer, which I think is where most of these (UM/ULI) awards go,” he said.

Volkers said every person who bought a unit at The Fitzgerald was helping create more economic stability for the city of Grand Rapids “and more economic stability for the retail sector.”

The actual development of a project like The Fitzgerald, he said, is “a big job,” and he praises developers who take on such challenges.

“And at the end of the day, if we don’t sell each individual unit, their work is not complete,” added Volkers.

The Steve Volkers Group, which is based in Grand Rapids, was formed six years ago and now has a staff of 16, counting agents and administration.

“We are residential sales agents,” he said. “We sell anything from a $50,000 house to the listing we took this week: a $3.7 million (house) in Otsego.

“We do a little bit of everything. Downtown condos is definitely a specialty of ours.”

Wackerman said Makino-Leipsitz was selected for The Real Estate Achievement Award because of both the extent and the quality of work she is doing in Detroit. The apartment buildings she has been renovating, starting seven years ago, date to the 1920s and 1950s. Her public partners in the projects are the city of Detroit and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

Chalmers Square is three historic, formerly blighted buildings on the east side of Detroit on Jefferson Avenue and Newport streets. Palmer Park is six vacant and blighted buildings that, when complete, will have a total of 202 apartment units. The properties are considered architectural treasures, according to UM/ULI, and the Palmer Park district is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lafayette Place Lofts, according to Wackerman, was an old Sears store in Pontiac. The architect, TDG Architects of Pontiac, secured LEED Platinum certification while preserving the historic character of the building.

“It’s on the north side of Pontiac,” said Wackerman, “not even in the area where most of the redevelopment has been concentrated. It was really pioneering to go to the north side and do something like this.”

Like Detroit, the city of Pontiac has been plagued by political instability and has had three emergency managers over four years, according to UM/ULI.

UM/ULI is an independent organization that partners with the University of Michigan real estate programs and the Urban Land Institute’s Michigan chapter. Wackerman said it serves as the conduit between students and practicing professionals in Michigan’s real estate industry.

The 27th UM/ULI Forum received 36 nominations, and the organization has made an effort lately to include every region in the Upper and Lower peninsulas. Choosing to have the forum in Lansing is part of that strategy, said Wackerman.

“This is the first time it’s truly been statewide,” he said.

This year’s two-day program will include a presentation, “Local Demographic Trends Driving Development,” presented by Laurie Volk of Zimmerman/Volk Associates. A panel will mull the “Challenges of Pedestrian Oriented Development,” and there will be a review of the MSU Built Environment Study: What the Market Wants, presented by Mark Beth Graebert of Michigan State University. “The Lansing Story” will be presented by Bob Johnson of the city of Lansing, Van Martin of CBRE|Martin and Bob Trezise of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership.

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