Preservation Pays Off

December 29, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Douglas J Aveda Institute hopes to open for business by the end of this month. The salon, spa and cosmetology school is setting up shop in the former U.S. Postal Annex building at 138 Commerce Ave. SW, which was once the subject of a heated controversy that ended when the structure became a parking garage.

The company has targeted Jan. 29 as its first day in Grand Rapids, with students already enrolled in the school. That opening, though, may need to be pushed back to early February because the renovation hit a slight snag when the steam tunnels that run through the building caused work on the interior to slow.

"We've been working very closely with the company that is doing the interior build-out and they're telling us they will turn the space over to us at the latest on Feb. 8. But we are still pushing for a Jan. 29 date," said Scott Weaver, president of Douglas J and son of company founder Douglas J. Weaver.

But opening a few days later is much better than not opening at all, which could have been the case if the city's Historic Preservation Commission had approved a request nine years ago to raze the annex for a surface parking lot. At the time, the board's decision to keep the annex standing wasn't a very popular one within the development community.

"We took a lot of heat when the HPC would not allow it to be demolished. The HPC said no because it was a usable building," said Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, a historic building preservationist who wasn't on the commission.

"It was structurally sound and it could be used as a building when the time came. Well, the time has come. Douglas J is putting a lot of money into it right now and it's going to be reused as a building," added Smith-Hoffman.

Cornerstone Architecture President Tom Nemitz was also very familiar with the postal annex building when it was in the news in 1998.

"We were the architect involved in the renovation of the United Way building, just to the north of that building. Between them and the developer, which was D&D Building at the time, they had purchased the postal annex building and intended to tear it down for surface parking, which was a bit of a dilemma," said Nemitz.

It was a dilemma for the owner because the annex is in the Heartside Historic District, and that location doesn't make it easy to tear down a building — even more so when the structure would be demolished for parking spaces. As for Nemitz, he sat on the city's preservation commission back then and was in the process of making historical renovations the cornerstone of Cornerstone's business.

So he came up with a compromise that satisfied the city, D&D and the United Way: The postal annex would become a parking garage.

"We proposed keeping the shell of the building, removing some of the parts that were going to interfere with some of the parking layouts, which was what I would call a non- contributing construction to the north side of it, and then working with the building to create the parking structure," said Nemitz.

"It was done to mothball the building for a higher and better use," he said. "In hindsight, it looks like that was the right thing to do."

Douglas J. Weaver founded the business with his wife, Sharon, in 1967. In 2004, the Michigan Retailers Association named the Douglas J Day Spa Salon retailer of the year for businesses with annual sales from $2 million to $20 million. A year later, Ernst & Young named him a finalist for the firm's West Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Scott Weaver told the Business Journal Grand Rapids was an appropriate location for the firm's next salon and cosmetology school, that it would complement the existing operations in East Lansing and Ann Arbor. He said about 20 percent of the students enrolled in the East Lansing school are from the Grand Rapids area, and the site on Commerce Avenue should attract students who don't want to commute or relocate to East Lansing.

Weaver said he spent a lot of time here looking at a lot of different buildings before deciding on the postal annex. Most of the places he saw had space for lease, but the institute wanted to own its building. So Douglas J bought the annex for $750,000 from the Heart of West Michigan United Way last spring.

"I liked what they were doing with the street and the development on Commerce. I liked the size of the building and that it is on a corner site. We like the proximity to (Thomas M.) Cooley Law School, as well as Western Michigan University. Our other two institutes in East Lansing and Ann Arbor are both located right on the college campuses. So the proximity to the students there was very attractive to us," said Weaver.

Weaver said he also was pleased that his company was contributing to the revival of downtown by renovating an existing building, even though it is more costly to keep the structure's brick exterior, noted postal markings and historical integrity in place than putting up a new building.

"The environmental cleanup on it was very costly to do. But I think we now have a clean building that has been abated (of asbestos and other harmful materials). So working with that shell was a little more difficult and much more costly. But I do believe the aesthetics will match the Douglas J brand and what we are trying to accomplish," said Weaver.

The Douglas J Aveda Institute will have an administrative office, 65 hair-cutting stations, two classrooms, five treatment rooms with spa services, student and employee lounges and a retail store across the building's 15,000 square feet.

"It will be just like any other retail store where people will be able to come in and shop. We will carry the full line of Aveda products in that store," said Weaver.

Turner Construction is the project's general contractor and Darren McKenna of Studio Intrigue Architects designed the renovation. David Kelly of Kelly Brothers has served as the owner representative on the project. Past Perfect Inc., partly owned by Smith-Hoffman, is helping Douglas J file for the historic tax credits for the project.

"I think this is a great story. Now that John (Logie) isn't mayor any more, we're kind of on a tear-down mentality again," said Smith-Hoffman. "There is very little support on the city commission (for building preservation), and I think this is one of the many times that historic preservationists have been vindicated."    

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