Will Towers Go Back To Full Size

October 24, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — This recess line isn’t a group of antsy 10-year-olds ready to hit the playground.

But it carries as much anxious energy as that kind of recess line, because it will determine how a $50 million residential project proposed by Union Foundry LLC for the Monroe North Business District gets built.

And city commissioners are likely to learn more about this recess line than they’ve ever wanted to know on Tuesday evening, when they hold a public hearing on a pair of apartment towers planned for the intersection of Trowbridge and Bond NW, two parcels that total 1.25 acres in the city’s Renaissance Zone.

The hearing is the result of an appeal made by the developers who disagreed with a decision from the Planning Commission that denied them four variances last month.

The recess line, however, may not be the only hot topic for discussion Tuesday as the height of the towers could be back on the agenda. If neighbors and developers reached an accord late last week on design adjustments to the north tower, then the buildings could come to commissioners at 210 feet high instead of 165 feet.

“If we made a more attractive façade, in their opinion, for the first five floors up to the (Monroe Terrace) height, they said they would not complain about the extra floors. So we’re trying to work with them,” said Joseph W. Moch, of Moch International and the driving force behind Union Foundry, last week.

At stake are five stories. Planners nixed the height variance Union Foundry requested last month and the developers didn’t appeal that portion of the panel’s decision a few weeks ago, choosing to build both towers 55 feet shorter. That affects the recess line.

So what is a recess line? In its simplest term, a recess line marks the point of a building where it begins to narrow.

“It’s usually associated with the height of a building. It has a direct relationship with how tall a building is,” said Tom Nemitz, president of Cornerstone Architects, who is not involved with the project.

The recess line in question at the hearing is for the north tower, proposed for the northwest corner of Trowbridge and Bond.

“It has probably become important because major metropolitan areas have usually incorporated recess lines so that there isn’t a ‘canyon’ effect down city streets,” said Nemitz.

Eliminating the canyon effect allows for more air and space and lets more sunlight reach the street level. Without recess lines, the wind would blow at a higher velocity on a street lined with tall buildings.

“It also is there to encourage some architectural interest on the upper portion of the building. But primarily it is there for the shade and shadows that are created from big masses of buildings,” added Nemitz.

The recess line in question doesn’t meet downtown zoning rules. It doesn’t face a public right-of-way, isn’t a dozen feet back from the lower front façade, and is slightly higher than the top of the building closest to the tower — Monroe Terrace, whose residents provide the strongest opposition to the project. But the line is that way by design.

“We’re trying to move the building away from the other buildings so they’ll have more light and air passage, and they’re fighting us on that,” said Moch.

Union Foundry has asked for a variance on the recess line. The developers argue if they spin the recess line of the north tower to meet the zoning law, condominium owners in Monroe Terrace would have less air, space and sunlight than the current design gives them.

The recess line for the south tower meets city code.

Union Foundry will also be seeking two other variances at the hearing for both towers. Instead of having to have 14 feet from the curb to the front of the buildings, they’re asking for a dozen feet. They’re also asking for an additional three feet for canopies at the front entrances of both buildings.

But according to the city, Union Foundry can put up the towers whether commissioners approve or reject the variance requests. The developers just can’t build the north tower as they have designed it unless they get the variances.

“They can build this building, as a whole, without the variances,” said Stan Bakita, an attorney with the city.

Demolition of a single-story brick building on the northeast corner of Trowbridge and Bond was completed last week. Union Foundry plans to build a restaurant on that site, a parcel that is not part of the Renaissance Zone. The developers hope to begin razing the Grand Rapids Foundry building by early next year and they’re not under any deadline to finish demolition.

“As long as we are progressing along, there is no end date to it,” said Moch. “But we are progressing along. We’ve cut a good portion of the metal out of the foundry building. So now it’s just picking up the kilns, getting all that stuff out of there.”

Moch said he wasn’t certain how much tax revenue the city would get from the towers once the Renaissance Zone expires in 2012 because he won’t know whether the apartment buildings will be 17 or 22 stories until commissioners make a decision.

But he said the towers would bring added state funds to the city for street work, police and schools from the towers’ real and personal property taxes and residents’ income taxes. On top of that, Moch said Union Foundry would pay $20 million for construction labor on the project.

“We’re putting in new sidewalks, heated sidewalks. We’re putting in trees. We’re putting in new roads. And the value of the property in the area is just going to skyrocket,” said Moch. “We’re trying to do something that the city is going to be proud of.”   

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