Architecture & Design, Focus, and Real Estate

Artistic minds pair well with cool spaces

Brewers repurpose vacant or outdated structures to fit the industry’s character.

September 4, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Brewery Vivant interior
Brewery Vivant turned a former funeral chapel into a Belgian-style brewery with the feel of a European monestary. Courtesy Pat Evans

Snapple bottles littered the vacant party store before it was transformed into Harmony Brewing Co. in 2010.

For more than 10 years, the building that had been Jack’s Liquor sat vacant at 1551 Lake Drive SE. Jackson Van Dyke, who co-owns the brewery with his brother and sister, Barry Van Dyke and Heather Van Dyke-Titus, drove by the empty storefront for years as he traveled from his Eastown home to Calvin College.

He and his siblings already were helping transform the area with their real estate company, Bear Manor Properties. They kept their eye on the property, until one day, Van Dyke said, “the price dropped and we could snatch it up. From there, it took a lot of work.”

The odd commercial building, which had been built around an old house, took more than two years and several hundred thousand dollars to renovate, including getting rid of trash and removing coolers, the cash-register counter, a dropped ceiling and shelving. The owners then streamlined the connection of the house and the front of the building.

Now, three years into the business venture, Harmony Brewing Co. is a key part of the Eastown community near its border with East Grand Rapids.

In August, trade website Craft Brewing Business ran a guest column by Bowditch & Dewey LLP real estate practice partner Donna Truex: “Re-purposing real estate: How that abandoned building could be your next brewery.”

In the article, Truex points to abandoned spaces with high ceilings and open floor plans as perfect locations for startup breweries. She also mentions the inexpensive acquisition costs and potential tax incentives. She details the risks such as re-zoning difficulties and possible environmental, historic and title issues.

Many of those points have been exemplified in the Grand Rapids brewery boom. Harmony’s site is just one of many local buildings in the past decade that have been turned from vacant or underutilized buildings into craft breweries.

As Harmony opened, Mitten Brewing Co.’s Max Trierweiler and Chris Andrus were renovating the 120-year-old Engine House No. 9 on the other side of town at 527 Leonard St. NW.

“It was really pretty simple: We wanted to be on the west side, and it was the coolest building we knew,” Andrus said.

Although originally the building wasn’t for sale, a conversation with the pair’s realtor led to negotiations and eventual purchase of the firehouse, which had housed a variety of businesses since it was retired from service in 1966.

Andrus, Trierweiler and friends spent nearly a year turning the bottom floor of the engine house into the brewery and taproom, taking it back from patchwork and drywall to the original brick skeleton underneath.

“I think the process of renovating the building took five years off our lives,” Andrus said. “The building was never meant for anything but firefighting. It took a lot of imagination and creative reuse. It was worth the sacrifice of doing the work ourselves because it allowed us to get to know the building and tell the story — because we hammered every nail.”

During his research on the building, Andrus learned that previous renovations had “remuddled” the building, instead of remodeling it. He said before the renovation, it was easy to forget it was a historic building.

Restoring the interior was much more difficult than doing the exterior, Andrus said, as the exterior had to remain virtually the same because the firehouse had been declared a Historic Landmark in 1980.

“There was nothing we could do to the building that was better than what was already there,” he said.

When the brewery’s expansion added a deck, they used freestanding steel beams rather than supports drilled into the building to preserve its integrity.

Andrus has worked closely with Rhonda Baker at the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. He understands it’s important for the commission to take strict measures because there’s no guarantee people will take the care to preserve historic structures.

“Someone needs to maintain the standards and make sure they’re not abused,” he said. “It’s for the betterment of the building and the betterment of the tenant. The worst thing you could do is get a great old building and turn it into something pedestrian.”

Breweries often benefit from making use of the existing character of old buildings, TowerPinkster’s Jason Novotny, director of design, told the Business Journal earlier this year.

“A lot of breweries that are successful have a good pairing of their style of beer and the environment they create,” Novotny said. “Those are the ones that really click with people.”

TowerPinkster has worked with several breweries, including two in Kalamazoo using unique settings: Gonzo’s BigDogg Brewing in an old Mazda car dealership, and Boatyard Brewing in a former ink storage building.

Transforming buildings is a balancing act of preserving the past and making the best use of a building’s space for business growth. While the Mitten Brewing Co. building still resembles a Victorian-era firehouse, Founders Brewing Co. radically transformed a former truck depot on Grandville Avenue SW.

In 2007, Founders was approaching its maximum production capabilities at the Brass Works Building on Monroe Avenue NW. The 12-foot ceilings of the former warehouse were always a hard workaround for owners Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens, so when they walked onto the rusted-out truck depot at 235 Grandville Ave. SW, they saw the potential for much-needed growth.

Founders recently completed its sixth expansion on the site, which includes a nearly seven-story-tall building to fit its new 85-foot fermenters.

“We felt strongly about staying downtown,” Engbers said of the building that sat vacant for decades. “We wanted a building with some character but was capable of growing with us.”

One of the benefits to the empty facility was the ability to design the production space to their specifications rather than cramming equipment into wherever it would fit.

Founders recently finished a $40 million expansion that will boost its production capabilities to more than 900,000 barrels of beer a year, and the building looks nothing like it did eight years ago. Engbers said they expected to expand production space, but didn’t realize the taproom and office areas would grow so fast, as well. The business now employs 325 workers.

Also nearing capacity — but not looking to expand beyond its walls — is Brewery Vivant at 925 Cherry St. SE.

Jason and Kris Spaulding settled on the former funeral chapel as the perfect location for the brewery as it harkened back to the Belgian monastery feel they sought.

One of the Spauldings’ main goals has been to make sure the taproom remains a community staple and helps serve the neighborhood.

Harmony Brewing Co. owners are getting ready to serve another neighborhood as they near completion of Harmony Hall on Bridge Street on the city’s west side. They are converting the former Little Mexico restaurant into a German-style beer hall.

Part of the reason for the new location is to supplement production at the Eastown brewpub, but also to be part of the rapid redevelopment of Bridge Street along with New Holland Brewing Co., The Black Heron and The Sovengard.

“We want to build a place that’s cool, aesthetically pleasing and a cool place to patronize,” Van Dyke said. “Grand Rapids has a lot of cool, funky old buildings that can be used for a variety of uses.”

The facility is actually two structures, one dating back to Rauser Quality Sausages, built in 1908. The Little Mexico restaurant opened in the late 1960s before suffering from a fire in 2008 and then reopening in 2010, only to close in 2012.

Van Dyke said the Harmony group took control of the building in February 2013, but it has taken more than two years to get it ready to open.

“We’ve had to take it and transform from Little Mexico to a re-imagined beer hall,” Van Dyke said. “The largest chunk of time has been remodeling, but nothing too major.”

Re-purposing a building can save some cash, but for many, the reason is more about making the building usable again and forming a connection with the history of the building — and having a story to tell.

“For whatever reason, that’s the M.O. of breweries — to repurpose buildings,” Andrus said. “The art of craft doesn’t apply to just beer. Artistic minds and eyes like those unfinished touches. Some even use repurposed materials inside new buildings to recreate that look.

“You’re in a building with character, the beer has character, and the whole environment exists in opposition of slick corporate design and products.”

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