Groups Team On Cherry Landing

April 21, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Rockford Companies and the DeVos family announced Thursday they are partnering on a $25 million project in the Cherry Street Landing district that will involve construction of one new building and the rehabilitation of five others.

Rockford Companies CEO John Wheeler estimates build out of the project would take about five years. Work on the buildings would be undertaken one at a time, beginning with the new Cooley Law School.

The Cooley portion of the project, just now entering the demolition and construction phase, involves rehabilitation of buildings at 38 Oakes St. and 121 Commerce Ave., a 40,000-square-foot addition between the buildings and a 75- to 110-space parking deck. The project area includes 30 existing parking spaces owned by Rockford, as well as a city-owned parking lot between Cheery and Oakes streets.

Work would then move across the street with the renovation of a one-story building on Ionia that will be home to the Black Rose Irish Pub. All five buildings targeted for renovation would be stripped down to their “skeletons” and completely redone, Wheeler said.

With the Historical Preservation Commission’s (HPC) approval, Wheeler said, the next phase of the project would be demolition of the 122-year-old, seven-story Milner Hotel at the corner of Oakes and Ionia SW, which would be replaced by a $4 million, four-story building with condos, apartments, a restaurant and some commercial office space.

The old Milner Hotel has been vacant since 1981, and a number of different development proposals have fallen through over the years, including the most recent plan to convert it into a Howard Johnson’s hotel.

Wheeler said the building has long stood in the way of development of Cherry Street Landing, a project on Ionia and Commerce avenues between Cherry and Oakes streets that his company has been working on for the past six years. The goal is to transform the area into an educational, entertainment, shopping and residential district.

“We went to great pains going to many different third-party structural and architectural consultants to help us make our decision on whether the building can or cannot be saved,” Wheeler said. “We are not people who like to tear buildings down. We make our living by renovating buildings and bringing things back to life.”

He said for the Milner Hotel, renovation isn’t an economically viable solution. The building has been a major impediment to the Cherry Street Landing development and has resulted in lots of lost opportunities for the company to lease space at 38 Oakes, he said.

The partners purchased the property from Owens-Ames-Kimball. Rockford COO Kurt Hassberger declined to disclose the purchase price, but did say it was “more than the property is worth.”

Wheeler said the partners moved forward with the purchase of the hotel with the sole intention of removing it and replacing it with a first class facility. The building that will replace the hotel will respect the architectural integrity of the whole neighborhood, he added.

He noted that the HPC previously granted the company the rights to remove three buildings in the area that were either “insignificant” or structurally unsound.

Dan DeVos pointed out that the removal of those three buildings cleared the way for Cooley Law School and the Black Rose Irish Pub and now paves the way for even more renovation of historic buildings to occur, he said.

“I hope that others will see that this building is a prominent blocker to that kind of renovation in other parts of this community,” he added.

Following construction on the Milner Hotel site would be the renovation of Heartside Manor into a housing project. Lastly, a five-story building at 61 Commerce Ave. would be renovated for mixed-use, possibly residential and commercial, Wheeler said.

That building currently houses the Heartside Clinic on the first floor, and Wheeler said the clinic would either remain there or relocate nearby in the Heartside area.

Groundbreaking is anticipated this summer. Design Plus is overall master plan architect for the project, Wheeler noted.

The development won’t necessarily complete Rockford’s vision for Cherry Street Landing but it represents another big step forward, Wheeler said.

Dick DeVos noted that this is the first time the DeVos family has partnered in a private development project. He said he sees it as a continuation of his family’s commitment to creating opportunity in the city’s urban core.

What also attracted his family to the partnership with Rockford was Wheeler’s and the Rockford Companies’ passion for downtown development, as evidenced by the work they’ve already done in the area, he said.

“They’ve done, in our estimation, a wonderful job of bringing freshness and renovation to the community, with a very sensitive touch to the architecture and historic significance (of the area), and yet have done it in an economically viable way. If it’s not economically viable, it’s not economically sustainable. The projects they’ve done have sustainability for the long term.”

Dan DeVos said there is a demonstrated need for the city “to continue to fulfill what it can really be.”

With the DeVos Place convention center scheduled to open late this year and the Van Andel Arena already driving so much downtown business, the rehab of dilapidated buildings and the growth trend needs to continue in order to keep people coming back downtown, he said.

Wheeler said the project responds to the back-to-urban-living wave that’s coming as more and more people move to the central city to both live and work.

“We firmly believe as a company that the world is changing back to an ‘experience driven entertainment era,’” he said. “When we decided to try to design this entertainment area, we asked what we could do to get people out of their house and maybe trade going out to buy something for going out on the town for the night.

“It’s our job to create that environment and to provide the physical facilities for new people to come in and lease space. We’ve got one shot to create a community down here by the arena that could certainly be connected through the skywalk and pedestrian walkways up to the hot spots.”

Dick DeVos said if the development is successful enough to attract competition to the downtown market, “that would be wonderful.”

The partners have yet to present the plan to the Planning Commission, but Hassberger said both the city and HPC have been “great to work with” on the project and have been very supportive.           

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