Urban renewal survivor stands a little taller
Developer reflects on history of The Rowe, now an 11-story apartment building built in 1923 that almost didn’t endure demolition craze of the ’60s.
As Nick Koster talks about The Rowe in downtown Grand Rapids, his fondness for old architecture is obvious.
Koster, vice president of development for CWD Real Estate, said his company started planning back in 2011 how it would renovate The Rowe, formerly a hotel with high-profile visitors like President John F. Kennedy.
The developers determined based on market factors they would renovate the building at 201 Michigan St. NW and convert it into apartments and condominiums. The project broke ground in 2015; the first apartments opened in August 2016, and the condos were completed in January.
“The location, the views and the historic building called out to the fact it would be something people would want to live in,” Koster said.
He said for CWD, the choice to preserve the building was about more than money; it was a nod to the city’s history — especially in light of the now unpopular period known as urban renewal, when the city razed dozens of old buildings in an effort to reverse blight and decline in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Being able to restore this building (was) important no matter where it was because we need to save the things worth saving,” he said. “Being able to restore it in that location … the architecture on that corner was the last hope of this architectural folly known as urban renewal. It might be a little harder, a little tougher, but it was important to save it.”
The Rowe project involved careful restoration of the exterior masonry, reconstruction of the Terracotta features on the façade — matching the remnants as closely as possible to new pieces — and leaving in place the street-facing archways all along the bottom of the building.
But converting the building to a new use after it sat empty since 2001 — and was senior housing before that — meant that the interior needed to be completely redone to bring it up to code and to make it appealing to a new generation.
“We essentially demolished everything except the structure and the exterior façade,” he said. “We took out the two-level basement and built a new underground parking facility. It was really using the bones and then building a brand-new building.”
Koster said The Rowe isn’t a registered historic building, so CWD was limited mainly by its own “restrictions of good taste” when it came to the renovation.
The new interior is what he calls a “modern design but also with the warmth of tradition.”
“We wanted it very modern, which meant grays, glass, cool tones, but we also wanted it to be very warm, so we brought in wood-grain flooring, and the armoires had a brown-tone laminate on it,” he said.
During the planning stage, the development team decided to give the building a little extra “oomph.”
“We … added the 11th floor, since we were going to have to do so much work to meet codes anyway,” he said. “Adding the 11th floor, it flowed into the rest of the building.”
The 10th floor houses the building’s fitness room, a decision Koster said is out of the ordinary for most residential buildings.
“A lot of times, people will stick the fitness center in the basement,” he said. “We put a fitness center on the 10th floor with floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking over the river.”
Atop the 11th floor is a rooftop lounge and deck that tenants may use to host guests or enjoy the view of downtown.
Koster said the building’s amenities are designed to make life easier for residents.
“We have an indoor dog room, so you don’t have to take your pet out to go to the bathroom at 4 a.m. in the middle of the winter,” he said. “It’s a grass area with a drain and a hose.”
The building also has an area for bikes, as well as the aforementioned converted basement-level parking.
“The whole point of urban living is to have it be easy. The underground parking is on-site, and it’s convenient,” he said.
Atwater Brewery is located on the ground floor, offering another element of convenience for residents.
“Having Atwater come into the picture was a real blessing,” Koster said. “Their brand really fits well with the building. It’s not pretentious; it’s very comfortable. They reused a lot of the elements of the existing building and it’s a really nice fit.”
When the team was planning the features The Rowe would have, Koster said he drew on his pleasant experience living at The Fitzgerald, 27 Library St. NE, for five years.
“I loved it there, and I had a lot of feelings about it,” he said. “It was a good learning experience for me, and I used it as I was working with our design team on this project. For example, the underground parking, we had that at The Fitzgerald.”
In a similar vein, Koster said the citizens of Grand Rapids feel invested in the success of The Rowe; everyone has a story about it.
“My mom’s parents lived there in the late ’80s. We had a person, Steve Datema, working on the project from Triangle Associates, whose grandparents had their honeymoon there.
“We had people say, ‘My parents lived here,’ or even if they didn’t have a personal connection to the building, they remember driving by and seeing people sitting on the porch when it was a senior home. For those who don’t have a personal connection, they visually are connected to it.
“That speaks to its importance in the city.”