Baker Building Could Extend Downtown

June 26, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Long-established Furniture City manufacturer Baker Furniture is consolidating the last of its West Michigan facilities and officially moving its headquarters to North Carolina. While little more than a symbolic blow to the region’s manufacturing base, the move could have a significant impact on downtown real estate.

Over the next two years, the company’s corporate headquarters and distribution facility will be gradually vacated, freeing up the 350,000-square-foot property at 1661 Monroe Ave. NW for redevelopment.

The Baker facility, which has frontage directly on the Grand River, is the farthest north of any of the former riverfront manufacturing plants. While it has factors against it, the historic $4.4 million structure on the corner of Ann Street presents an opportunity to extend the downtown district by an additional six blocks.

“Well, we have been called the gateway to North Monroe,” said Kim Beyer, president of Constructors Inc., the developer of the Old North Boundary commercial center at 1140 Monroe Ave. NW. “It looks like it might be moving up that way.”

Beyer is very familiar with the Baker neighborhood — he lives only a few blocks to the east — and recalls numerous conversations with Mike Tillie, proprietor of the market opposite the Baker building on Monroe.

“He says, ‘Why don’t you buy that building across the street and turn it into condos or something?’” Beyer said. “I’ve said over the years that would be a nice building to get a hold of.”

Beyer believes the building is ripe for mixed-use redevelopment or straight residential as condominiums or apartments. It could also be sold off as industrial or office suites. And as a warehouse operation and wood furniture facility before that, it is more likely to be in good shape.

“The type of work they do is a lot different than if we go into a foundry like we did for Old North Boundary,” he said. “They tend to be relatively clean, with wood floors.”

He said he inquired about the property several years ago, but the company’s asking price was much too high.

Blue Bridge Ventures President Jack Buchanan has also taken a look at the property. When he toured it some years ago, he had a mixed impression.

“It’s a building with a lot of character (and) a pretty unique location right on the river,” he said. “It’d be a fun project, but it’s a bit out of the major redevelopment area.”

Buchanan has been a proponent of the North Monroe area, home to the Berkey & Gay (now The Boardwalk) and Brass Works buildings, both historic former-manufacturing sites. A redevelopment of the multi-story, brick Baker building would fit a model similar to those highly successful projects, but its location might be too far from the downtown center. It is a full six blocks north of Old North Boundary.

Susan Shannon, economic development director for the city of Grand Rapids, stated the city has always intended the North Monroe Avenue corridor to eventually develop all the way to Riverside Park, three blocks north of the Baker building. The parks department has hopes to expand a river walk and bike trail to connect the park and the core downtown, she said.

“It might not happen today, but certainly could in the next five years,” she said, citing De Vries Development’s renovation of the former Monroe Avenue filtration plant at 1430 Monroe Ave. NW into Clearwater Place, a mixed-use office park.

Buchanan believes distance is only part of the problem. The neighborhood is densely residential with industrial use along Monroe. De Vries Development has converted a number of facilities into office buildings in the half-mile stretch south of the facility, but the loft-style architecture and a location that is deeper into the unattached-housing-dominated Creston Heights neighborhood would seem to make the Baker building a better fit for residential.

The problem with that, Buchanan said, is that the lack of surrounding commercial development would be a deterrent to residents who seek the walk-ability of urban housing. Plus, the market is saturated with historic housing.

“Maybe it could serve as an alternative to the higher-end downtown housing, if someone could get the economics to work,” Shannon said. “There seems to be a demand for entry-level product.”

Another hindrance a developer would have to address is the mixed construction of the site. Barely visible from Monroe, the historic L-shaped structure is a little less than half of the developed footprint. The rest of the structure is a roughly 25-year-old addition of modern industrial space that occupies most of the river frontage.

“A lot of developers bring up the building — it’s a cool space,” Buchanan said. “But you’ll have to figure out how to deal with the industrial space — tear it down, something — and how do you deal with it being on the edge (of downtown)?”

Shannon indicated that the city is ready to assist developers any way it can.

“We’ve had our eye on the Baker building for years, knowing that it was obsolete for manufacturing,” she said. “We’ll be ready to help any future owner.”

A division of Wisconsin home-furnishings giant Kohler Co., Baker closed its last plant in Holland in 2004. The bulk of its local work force was laid off over a decade ago, and its last two presidents have resided in North Carolina.

The closure begins the final phase of a plan announced by parent company Baker Knapp and Tubbs Inc. in 2003 to consolidate all of the company’s furniture assets in North Carolina. The move will affect 80 administrative and production employees over the next two years.

An estimated 70 jobs will be created in North Carolina. Baker will receive $76,000 in state incentives to aid in the transition.

The former Backer facility in Holland has already been redeveloped as a mixed-use facility.    

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