Chronicling The Aslan

October 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Seventh Street Properties LLC is set to bring the Aslan Building back to life, a 102-year-old former American Seating Co. factory that produced church pews in its heyday.

But it wasn’t known as the Aslan when American Seating owned it. Bob Israels, who is Seventh Street Properties and who owns Israels Designs for Living, purchased the vacant building and gave it that name because his grandkids are fans of a certain mythical lion.

Aslan is the lion in the “Chronicles of Narnia,” a series of seven fantasy novels C.S. Lewis wrote for children between 1949 and 1954. In Narnia, magic is common, good prevails over evil, and life lessons are learned.

“I have nine grandchildren. I watch the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ all the time,” Israels said with a hearty laugh.

In the Israels Designs for Living Trade Center at 601 Fifth St. NW, just south of the Aslan, Israels has a huge, century-old painting of a lion gracing one of the walls that once hung prominently in the Back Room Saloon, which was located in the old Pantlind Hotel on the spot the Amway Grand Plaza now occupies.

“I have that hanging over the desk in the Trade Center. Because the Trade Center has been such a huge success and because I believe that Aslan the lion is what we’re going to be doing in this new building — which is basically changing a lot of things and giving a lot of courage to people —  we named it the Aslan Building.”

Israels will move Israels, The Other Store from its current location at 446 Grandville Ave. SW to the ground floor of the Aslan, where the business will have more space. The store sells discontinued fine furniture lines at discounted prices.

Residences are planned for the existing second floor and for a third one that will be added to the building. Twenty-six units are planned for those floors, with about half being designed as live-and-work residences.

“I presently have seven people who want to take large portions of space. These are accountants, architects and other professional people. And the back-end residence, which will actually have a separate entrance that goes into the residence, we will have residents on the second level and the third level,” said Israels.

The building will have two elevators, two lobbies and parking for 64 vehicles, with some spaces inside the Aslan. With the addition, the building will have 100,000 square feet.

“It’s a pretty neat development. This is the kind of thing they’re doing in San Francisco quite a bit right now, so consequently I took the idea lead from that. People can actually take advantage by buying these and take the tax credits that will be coming with them,” said Israels.

According to the city, brownfield tax credits could be worth up to $1.73 million for a number of eligible activities that Israels plans to do with the project — things like upgrades to the infrastructure, demolition work and asbestos removal. The $7.9 million project also qualifies for an SBT tax credit worth $699,000.

The Aslan is also in the city’s Renaissance Zone, which exempts most city and state taxes for a number of years. Economic Development Director Susan Shannon recently told city commissioners that the tax capture won’t begin until 2009 and it will take until 2029 to reimburse Seventh Street Properties. And because the project is a historic renovation, additional tax credits are available.

“We’ve got brownfield [tax credits] and we have a TIF credit. There is another new credit coming out — the historic tax credit — that I will be keeping myself, but the rest I will be transferring over to purchasers,” said Israels.

The city’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority has approved the Aslan project and added the building to its plan. City commissioners have the final say, and they’re expected to add their approval next month.

The largest of the residences will be about 7,500 square feet; Israels said he will own that unit. He plans to live and work there, but also use the residence as a place for out-of-town customers to stay when they come here to purchase furniture displayed at his busy Trade Center.

“The reason for the large space is because we’ve been selling so much furniture out of our Trade Center that isn’t going into Michigan. We’re delivering all over the United States right now,” said Israels

“Once we started this Trade Center, which was a year ago this June, we were anticipating we’d have 100 accounts. We’ve got 450 accounts. So we hired additional people, and we’re going to hire more people.”

Israels said the idea to have customers stay at the Aslan goes back to the 1800s when the city clearly was the fine furniture capital of the world. Back then, companies put their best clients up at the Morton House, once a stylish residential address, and that practice continued into the 1960s.

“The clientele would come to Grand Rapids and if it was a reasonably decent clientele, like the movie stars that used to come here to buy all their furniture, there were places at the top of the Morton House that were designed for them to stay there,” he said.

“We’re going to be using this 7,400- to 7,600-square-foot place for some of these very prestigious people that have been flying to Grand Rapids and that have been buying U.S.- made furniture.”

Renovating the Aslan won’t be the first major project on the near West Side that Israels has undertaken. A few years ago, he bought buildings from the John Widdicomb Furniture Co. and made those the core for the firm’s campus in the neighborhood that he grew up in. Israels said he has invested plenty into renovating those structures, cleaning up the area, and moving much of his furniture business to the site that runs north from Fourth to Seventh streets and east from Muskegon to Seward avenues.

“That was a big expenditure. I spent $27.5 million on this development and at this point right now, it’s very successful, and we’re expecting it to get even more successful,” he said.

Post Associates Inc. has designed the Aslan renovation and addition. Several contractors have been hired to do the work. Construction is set to begin in January and wrap up next summer.

Israels wanted to start the work earlier. But he is waiting to see what type of credits state lawmakers come up with to replace those offered by the SBT, the tax they recently repealed two years early.

“The reason why we haven’t started it sooner is because of the SBT situation. We really don’t know where those tax credits are going to go,” he said. “It was wise for us to wait, because if we had pulled the building permit ahead of finding out where the tax credits are going to be coming from, those tax credits would not be applicable.”    

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