'Nothing Going On'

January 14, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — There is no mystery to this development.

In fact, the property owner has said over and over again that there is no development.

Yet, the speculation continues that a big deal is simmering downtown, just a few blocks south of Fulton Street along Market Avenue, on properties that were once part of the now-fabled $2.5 billion "mystery development" proposed two years ago by Atlanta developer Duane Faust.

Universal Forest Products chairman emeritus, former U.S. Ambassador to Italy, and SIBSCO founder Peter Secchia bought three properties on Market Avenue last year: 74 Market Ave. SW, 90 Market Ave. SW, and 130 Market Ave. SW. He told the Business Journal that making those purchases was not out of the ordinary for him.

"I've been doing this for 20 years. I buy empty buildings and take the pigeon poop out of them. I fix up the windows, clean them up, and try to find somebody to rent it or buy it, and add more businesses and activity to downtown," said Secchia, who started SIBSCO, a real estate management company in the early 1980s.

"There is nothing going on. There is an expressway between the properties, and it would be difficult to do a development with an expressway in the middle of it. There is no game plan," he emphasized.

A U.S. 131 overpass separates the sites at 74 and 90 Market from the property at 130 Market.

A portion of 74 Market is being leased, and the rest of the single-story structure is being offered for lease through Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce. The three-story building at 90 Market was once home to the Commercial Printing Co. of Grand Rapids and is now vacant. Although separate addresses, the buildings appear to be joined at a structural hip because the two are situated so close to each other. Both are located across Market Avenue from the popular Charley's Crab restaurant and a rather long block south of a parking lot that Alticor Inc. owns.

Ronda Tire occupied the building at 130 Market until Secchia purchased it; the business has relocated to 1335 Godfrey St. SW. Ronda's former site is kitty-corner from the city-owned Public Works Island, nearly 16 acres of riverfront property that the city tried to sell for $35 million. Those acres made up roughly half of the total acreage in the so-called mystery development.

All the properties are situated between Weston and Cherry streets and are now in the Downtown Development Authority district, as the expansion plan that city commissioners approved last month brings Market Avenue into the board's jurisdiction.

 The DDA won't collect tax revenue from that sector. Board members chose to keep those blocks open for the city's Brownfield Redevelopment Authority because the properties are underdeveloped and would qualify for brownfield assistance, and a brownfield tax-increment financing plan would take precedence over one from the DDA.

When Secchia said he has a history of buying downtown buildings, he wasn't kidding. About a decade ago, he struck up a partnership with Rockford CEO John Wheeler, and together they purchased the vacant Peck Drug Store building at the corner of Monroe Center and Division Avenue. The Peck has been historically renovated and is occupied today.

Secchia also teamed up with Rockford to purchase the former Steketee's Department Store building at 86 Monroe Center about eight years ago when it was empty. Today, the seven-story structure is home to Blue Cross Blue Shield of West Michigan, Independent Bank of West Michigan and Schuler's Books and Music.

Secchia was Rockford Construction's initial partner in the very aggressive Cherry Street Landing project that contained 13 neglected and vacant buildings just south and east of Van Andel Arena. The project's construction tab reached $60 million and the work took the better part of a decade to complete.

Once the Tall House at 45 Ionia Ave. gets built — work is expected to begin this year — the Cherry Street Landing project will officially be finished. But for all practical purposes, it was finished nearly two years ago, and in the coming years it could ultimately go down in history as the most ambitious project in downtown Grand Rapids.

"There are almost 40 buildings that I've been the developing partner, or the financial partner, or the buying and selling partner, in downtown since 1976. You know, if you think this through, I don't know why this got so much attention," said Secchia of his purchases on Market Avenue.

"When I bought Cherry Street Landing, it was 13 buildings and it definitely was a risk — and it was a high risk."

Once word got out that Secchia bought the Market Avenue properties, he received a few offers from sellers who thought he was in the process of putting a development together.

"In fact, I've turned down two," he said of the offers. "There is absolutely nothing going on."

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