Construction of New Marriott No Piece of Cake

September 9, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — That Great Blue Heron visible from the windows of the new JW Marriott isn't on the hotel’s payroll. It just likes to hang out there.

Actually, herons can be seen every summer hunting for fish from the big rock in the middle of the Grand River. One was standing there as finishing touches were put on the JW Marriott in late August.

The tranquility of the scene belies the effort and expense that went into the new hotel. Building it was no piece of cake.

When the hotel was still in the planning stages in 2004, local news reports stated that the project was expected to cost from $60 million to $70 million. When asked about the final cost in May, Bert Crandell of Amway Hotel Corp. (the owner) said it was "in excess of $100 million."

Construction began in September 2005, and "the schedule was very challenging," according to Mike VanGessel, president of Rockford Construction.

The construction of the only JW Marriott in the Midwest was actually a joint venture of Rockford Construction of Grand Rapids and Pepper Construction Group of Chicago. It was designed by Chicago’s Goettsch Partners and Grand Rapids’ BETA Design Group, while the hotel interior was designed by Brennan Beer Gormon Monk Interiors of New York City and BETA Design.

VanGessel said many aspects of the project were challenging, including the 24-story atrium, the amount of land the builders had to work on, and the micro pilings that had to be put down first.

In addition, while the hotel was being built, so was its $15 million parking ramp about a hundred feet south of the hotel construction. VanGessel noted that Louis Street on the south side of the hotel had to be rebuilt, and the streets bordering the north and east sides of the lot had to remain open. The west side was sealed off tight, too — by the river. And then there was the Riverfront Plaza on the south side of the parking ramp that was undergoing an addition at the same time — bringing still more construction equipment and crews into close proximity with one another.

VanGessel said the hotel site is about one-half the size of a normal city block. The project was a "massive amount of work that had to happen in a relatively small space in a relatively short period of time," he said, adding that the two-year construction schedule was "pretty aggressive."

The fact that the river was only a few yards west of the hotel also presented some challenges. There are many veins of gypsum under the city, some of which are close to or under the river. Gypsum is a soft, water-soluble mineral, so the engineers had to make sure any fissures in any gypsum veins under the site were filled with concrete to keep water out. There were also large rocks in the substrata that precluded the use of normal construction caissons for a foundation, so hundreds of micro piles were sunk to a depth of about 60 feet and pumped full of concrete.

People tend to only think of the exterior of a building when considering the construction.

"As you get inside, you begin to appreciate how much time was needed to do the high level of finish inside all the rooms, the lobby, the restaurant," noted VanGessell. The interior work required hundreds of tradesmen and craftsmen.

The helipad on the roof is a "whole other structure on top of our structure," said VanGessell. The concrete pad is designed to "take the weight of quite a large helicopter." The only other building in Grand Rapids with a helipad on the roof is Spectrum Health.    

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