'An Absolutely Stunning Building'

January 4, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — If the state agrees to extend the Renaissance Zone for the Aslan Building at 600 Seventh St. NW, owner Robert Israels will be able to lease the new space at less than the going market rate.

Israels said two companies have inquired about moving into the three-story structure, which is undergoing renovation work and should be finished in June.

“The people who have applied have given us serious input about taking over the whole top floor, which would be just amazing. It would bring a lot of jobs here,” he said.

Israels, CEO and president of Israels Designs for Living, originally planned to install residential units on the building’s second and third floors. But when commercial firms began inquiring about that space, he sort of changed his mind and now is leaning toward creating some commercial space.

“It’s actually designed so it can go either way. We’ve actually got all the plumbing and everything in to create the individual work-at-home program in there, and at that point we were really planning on doing that. But this generates a better income base for the city and also promotes something we all need, which is jobs,” he said.

“We made a multi-use of every square foot in that building, so if at any time something wouldn’t work, we could always reuse the building for another type of operation.”

Still, there will be at least one residence in the building, and it will be an unusual one that Israels will own. He plans to make the apartment available for fundraising events and to his business clients who visit the Israels Trade Center, just a short stroll to the south.

The apartment will have 8,900 square feet of space and will rise five floors, with the last three levels occupying the clock tower that sits on top of the northeast corner of the Aslan. The residence has all the earmarks of being something very special.

“In the master bedroom, we have a custom bed that we manufactured for some of our clients in the Middle East, which is 14 feet wide and 7 feet long. So I’ll have a 14-foot-wide bed up there, 7 feet long — which will overlook the whole city while you’re in bed,” he said with a laugh.

The bedroom is 1,000 square feet and is in the fifth story of the clock tower. One floor below the bedroom is the bathroom, also 1,000 square feet. On the third floor is an office and on the second floor is a kitchen, and both are 1,000 square feet. The ground floor contains the living room and an area for entertaining guests, with a bar that will stretch for 39 feet.

Just below the ground floor is the apartment’s energy center. Israels said the work is being done on a “green” basis, but added that he wouldn’t be applying for certification.

“Those are the kind of things that are intriguing. We’ve got some real interesting and innovative ideas that are going to be there. It’s going to be very unique and very high style in design. And we’re going to be featuring Grand Rapids furniture there.”

Israels is serving as the general contractor for the work on the Aslan, a name he gave the building after reading “The Chronicles of Narnia,” written by C.S. Lewis, to his grandkids. Aslan is the name of the lion in the children’s story. The work involves adding a third floor to the building’s original two stories and using the structure’s original timbers.

“I’m not in the contracting business. But I own many different businesses. I own several architecture firms and engineering firms in other states. Because the building was determined as a non-usable building, and I’m not a person who accepts that, there really wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity to do this job from a bid basis,” he said.

“We’ve never ventured into the construction business before, and let me put it this way: They definitely earn their money,” he said of general contractors.

Israels used a software program from one of his architectural firms and architect Mark Post of Post Associates Inc. to lay out the project. His retail outlet of moderately-priced furniture, The Other Store, moved into the Aslan’s ground floor a few months ago.

“It’s rich with heritage. The clock tower, which I’ve got a gigantic clock being put in, is a five-story elevator and originally was a transfer point for the cars that were made in the building where American Seating now is,” he said.

“The Aslan is going to be an absolutely stunning building.”

City commissioners extended the zone designation a few weeks ago for the Aslan and three other nearby buildings that Israels is restoring on the city’s near west side along Seward Avenue. Now it’s up to the state to do the same.   

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