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Downtown’s center has new owners

CWD will ‘re-imagine’ the Fifth Third Center.

October 7, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Sam Cummings had his eyes on the Fifth Third Center for a long time.

Now, Cummings and his partners at CWD Real Estate Investment have the building and their sights are set on the bigger picture of Grand Rapids. CWD closed on the acquisition of the Fifth Third Center — two buildings and a 723-parking structure at 111 Lyon St. NW and 200 Monroe Ave. NW — from Fifth Third Bank last week.

With the acquisition, CWD properties now make up a large chunk of the border surrounding the 12.5-acre Vandenberg Center, which includes Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse. CWD has no firm timetable or plan for the Fifth Third Center but does plan on updating the 330,000-square-foot plot, just as the firm has with 200 and 300 Ottawa Ave. NW and the Calder Plaza Building, 250 Monroe Ave. NW.

“The real estate fundamentals are as good as any in the city, if not the best,” Cummings said. “What hasn’t stood the test of time is the design, so we need to think how do we make this real estate contribute to the city again long term?”

Cummings said when the buildings were built in the 1960s, vehicular access was one of the major considerations when thinking about a building and how it contributes to the city. Today, as CWD plans the properties’ futures, a different lens is needed, he said.

The building currently is full, with a long-term commitment from Fifth Third Bank to remain in the complex, and the University Club and Warner Norcross and Judd also are under contract. Warner Norcross and Judd has plans to move into a proposed development by Orion Construction on the corner of Lyon Street and Ottawa Avenue when its lease expires in 2019.

Moving forward, CWD plans to take current and future tenant considerations into account for its updates.

“The building doesn’t meet the current needs and desires of the city workforce,” Cummings said. “How do we leverage its advantages and convert them to meet the needs and desires of the contemporary population? That’s the lens we’ll be looking through.

“Nothing is off the table.”

CWD’s announcement of the acquisitions confirms the deal rumored for many months following Fifth Third Bank’s initial announcement it was seeking to sell the property last November.

The closing of the deal took a long time, Cummings said, as there were a lot of moving parts in such a large real estate transaction.

“Sometimes, those things take a long time,” he said. “We’d rather make good decisions that take longer and have a good long-term benefit than perhaps the quick decision. This is one of those that to do it properly, we had to take our time.”

CWD turned out to be the right investment fit for Fifth Third Bank, which wanted to remain a long-term investor in the city of Grand Rapids without the real estate investment, said Tom Welch, West Michigan regional president of Fifth Third Bank. The bank temporarily will move into the 200 Monroe Avenue building while three floors of the 10-story 111 Lyon St. NW building are renovated, Welch said, which will result in some consolidation of physical space.

“The plan is to remain right where we are, everybody that is here will still be here,” Welch said. “It’s exciting. The real impetus was it’s the right thing for the community.”

Welch said Old Kent Bank — which was acquired by Fifth Third in 2000 — built the center as an economic development project to help bring activity downtown, and the decision to sell is the “second phase in the 50-year project” to help draw more activity downtown. Fifth Third sent out eight requests for proposals and received two responses.

“In this decision, I thought to myself, ‘What can we do to once again spark development? How can we give back this space that can be so much more than it is today?’” Welch said. “We needed to look for a developer that sees the same potential to create a vibrant hub. That developer was CWD.”

Cummings said the buildings’ proximity to the city’s philanthropic and cultural investments and its largest employers — hotels, convention center and Medical Mile — make it an ideal project to help further the development of the vibrancy of Grand Rapids.

He said many in the city have been “down on” the Fifth Third Building recently because of its design and how it works with the overall picture of downtown and the Calder Plaza. He has a different opinion, however.

“It’s certainly one of the most challenging things I’ve been fortunate enough to be engaged in in the last 25 years, but it has the greatest potential,” Cummings said. “People have wanted to abandon it, but we’re not of that mind. We think it’s the best in the city, and with a little love and commitment, we can convert it into something we’re collectively proud of and once again an extraordinary asset in Grand Rapids.”

The Fifth Third Center, along with the other Calder Plaza border properties CWD owns, will be an integral part of the “re-imaging” process the area currently is part of, led by the city and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

Cummings and fellow CWD managing partner Scott Wierda are two members of the 21-person citizen steering committee leading the conceptual planning of the future of public space at Vandenberg Center.

“Its importance as a civic living room and home to the symbol of our community cannot be understated,” DGRI President and CEO Kris Larson said. “However, it’s fair to say that the current condition is one of the edges and divides between the vitality of the downtown workforce and the plaza itself.

“CWD’s commitment to seeing through a vision of connected and re-invigorated Vandenberg Center enables tremendous opportunities for those edges to become seams and for Calder Plaza to realize its full potential.”

CWD acquired the Fifth Third Center with its leadership group — Cummings, Wierda and Dan DeVos — knowing it would be among the toughest the firm has taken on in its history, or each individual’s prior careers.

“It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but we’re not afraid of a lot of work,” Cummings said. “This project and the surrounding area all represent part of a canvas that has the opportunity to fully fulfill itself. It’s going to be a riot.”

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