Monroe Center Work Is On Tap

October 17, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — The preliminary design for the renovation of eight small buildings on Monroe Center is underway.

Belford Development LLC has sketched in 13 condominiums for the upper floors, along with retail and commercial space for the lower levels, for seven of the eight structures on the south side of the former pedestrian mall east of Ionia Avenue. The addresses run from 51 to 63 Monroe Center.

The plan for the eighth building at 65 Monroe Center, a former branch office of Central Bank, hasn’t been finalized yet.

All the structures are in the downtown Renaissance Zone and construction will likely begin late this year or early next year.

“We don’t have any definite users at this point,” said Rockford Development COO Kurt Hassberger, whose firm has joined forces with Lee Kitson of Kitson Builders and the Paul Belden family to form Belford Development.

“But the buildings are all in the Renaissance Zone and with that designation, plus everything else that is going on on Monroe Center, we don’t anticipate a huge problem in leasing that space up. We haven’t really brought it to the market yet, but we’re close to being able to do that,” he added.

Hassberger was referring to the revitalization of the former Steketee’s Department Store at 86 Monroe Center, where Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan will have its regional office next summer, and the Peoples Building at 60 Monroe Center, where Parkland Properties is building 26 residential condominiums and four commercial ones. Both buildings are also in the zone and across Monroe Center from the Belford project.

Hassberger said the partners did not buy the first floor or basement of the Yen Ching Restaurant at 57 Monroe Center, but they did purchase the second and third floors of that building. So the eatery is not part of the renovation, but the building will get a new façade as part of the project.

“Our idea is to restore the façades of all these buildings to something close to what these were historically,” he remarked.

Right now there are two retail spaces available at 51 and 53 Monroe Center. Hassberger, however, said the partners might use one of those sites for an entrance to the condos. The restaurant and the nearby wig shop will stay on the block, at least for the immediate future.

Interior demolition on the two upper levels of each building and exterior façade work on the structures are the starting points for the project, which will only take about nine months to complete once work begins in earnest.

Even though there are eight buildings in the group, Hassberger said the partners are looking at seven as a single structure, which makes the project similar to what Rockford Construction did a few years ago with the Peck Building at 34-50 Monroe Center. The Peck was three separate buildings that were renovated into one.

“What we want to do is put the for-sale condominiums in the Renaissance Zone properties and then leave rentals in the non-Renaissance Zone. We think that makes some sense because then you don’t have an unfair apples and oranges competition going on between condominiums units and rental units,” said Hassberger.

Rockford Development has purchased the building at 56-58 Monroe Center, the former City Market that sits across the street from the Belford project, and the Belmont-based firm plans to build four apartments on the upper floors. Those will be rentals and the structure is not in the Ren Zone.

Seven of the buildings in the Belford project are three stories; only 65 Monroe Center is two. But that former bank branch has three levels: a first and second floor and a lower level that has an entrance from Ionia Avenue.

As far as what the partners will do with it will depend on the tenant.

“It could be a lot of things. There is a fairly good-sized room on the east side of the first floor. Depending on the user and their creativity, there could be a lot of interesting things done with that,” said Hassberger.

The building has a bank vault on the first floor.

While the final touches are being put on the plans for those eight buildings, Rockford will begin removing asbestos from Steketee’s soon. That job should take 10 weeks and then the actual renovation work will get started. Blue Cross signed a 10-year lease with Rockford and the nonprofit health insurer hopes to move in by early August.

At the same time, Rockford has begun pre-demolition work on the former Milner Hotel at Ionia and Oakes SW. The single-story portion to the south of the main building will be razed first. Then the seven-story structure should start to come down by the end of the month.

Rockford is preserving some of the terra cotta from around the building’s windows and hopes to be able to use much of it in the new building that will go up on the Milner’s site.

“It’s a little bittersweet. It really is,” said Hassberger of the demolition. “Anytime one of these buildings gets in the condition where it has to come down, it’s sad. But I think what is going to go up in its place is going to be really neat.”    

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