An Up-And-Comer

February 13, 2008
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Andy Winkel is
beginning to make his commercial mark on
GR's core streets

Andy Winkel may very well be the busiest developer in the city right now, as he has his hands wrapped around his fourth project in just the last 12 months.

And all four have been targeted for some of the city’s oldest streets. That may not mean much at first — until you learn that Winkel got his start in the local market by working for a living legend in the suburban Chicago real estate market.

Winkel, who owns Kelwin Properties, recently got the green light from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to demolish an obsolete office building at 38 Commerce Ave. SE in order to make room for his latest project: a $14 million development that will result in at least 68,000 square feet of new office, retail and residential space across two buildings that will come together at the intersection of Commerce Avenue and Weston Street.

Winkel calls the structures “liner buildings” because the designs were purposely drawn up to be street friendly and to hide a new $11 million parking ramp the city will build behind the buildings to fill the parking void in the rapidly developing Heartside Business District, which is just south of downtown’s core blocks.

The project will offer 30,000 square feet of office space in the seven-story Weston building, from 30 to 35 condominiums in the eight-story Commerce building, and space for retail shops along the ground floors of both.

“The whole idea behind the liner buildings is to keep the streets pedestrian-friendly,” said Winkel.

The 28-year-old Winkel is a native of Portage who went to work for a Chicago-based property management and development group after earning his college degree. The firm, owned by the well-known, Windy City suburban residential developer Bruno Bottarelli, sent Winkel here to run the company’s local office. He spent roughly four years managing the firm’s properties, assets and developments in the region.

But little did Winkel know when he started working with Bottarelli — managing director of Marquette Companies and an architect by trade — that this master of suburban housing tracts would lead him to a career of urban redevelopment, one that he has totally embraced.

“(Bottarelli) had been building what I call suburban sprawl projects for 15 years. He was called ‘The King of the Suburbs’ in Chicago. But at the time I was working with him, he had this epiphany. He said he had to stop building these cookie-cutter homes, and he wanted to start building responsible projects and smart projects,” said Winkel.

“He is the one who turned me on to this new urbanism and smart-growth projects. I worked with him for about four years doing urban and rehab projects in Chicago and Detroit, while living in Grand Rapids.”

While he oversaw those major-market projects, Winkel said he noticed there were similar opportunities for urban and rehab projects right here in his “own backyard” that he hadn’t noticed before because his attention was so riveted on the work he was doing in Chicago and Detroit. So in 2005, Winkel took the leap. He left Bottarelli to start Kelwin Properties and dropped his development anchor right here in River City.

“It’s a great Midwestern town with tons of opportunity for growth. I decided to start up the company right here and do the same thing I’d been doing for the past four years — but do it on my own and do it in Grand Rapids,” he said.

Winkel said the purpose of Kelwin Properties is to create memorable and sustainable buildings, and the company tries to do that in a number of ways. Kelwin Properties develops projects on its own, works in tandem with others, and is willing to serve as a new urbanism consultant to developers who might want to enter the field or the market.

Kelwin Properties has worked with the Elevation Group on three projects. The two firms joined Doug Gulker and Fusion Properties to convert two empty five-story warehouses into Hopson Flats, a 148-bed, mixed-use, student-housing complex that opened last fall at 212-216 Grandville Ave. SW. They also partnered on a new home for Founders Brewing Co., not far from Hopson Flats at 235 Grandville Ave. SW.

And they should be wrapping up their third effort together any day now: the renovation of a two-story building at 444 Bridge St. NW. The second floor will be a three-bedroom student apartment, while the ground floor will remain commercial space.

Elevation Group principal John Green said he met Winkel when working with Sam Cummings at Second Story Properties and Winkel was hunting for office space for his new firm. Winkel settled in at 15 Ionia Ave. SW, a downtown building that Second Story owns and manages. His meeting with Green and Cummings eventually led him to a site for his current liner project.

“Sam and I controlled a few properties in the area and began to develop a plan to build a parking ramp that would connect Division to Commerce with some first floor retail, similar to the Ottawa ramp that houses Leo’s. We ran into two problems; one key property owner was uncooperative and would not sell, and the project would not work financially. Sam presented the concept to Andy, who began to run with it,” said Green.

“Andy was familiar with the ‘liner building’ concept because of a project he worked on while in Chicago,” he added.

Since that initial meeting, Green said he and Winkel have become good partners and even better friends, and they share the same passion to make downtown a special place.

“Andy has a very good handle on what it takes to make a project work, both financially and in the best interests of the community. He is one of the best young developers I have ever worked with and a true asset to the city,” said Green.

At press time, CQ asked Green if he was a partner in the liner project and Green said, “Not yet,” indicating that he was at least considering joining the effort. Winkel told CQ he would welcome Green to the project if he decided to become part of it.

“His strengths match up with my strengths and we complement each other very well,” said Winkel. “At the same time, we have fun working together and that may be the most important thing. In this business, if you’re not having fun, then it’s not worth doing.”

Winkel graduated with a business degree from the University of Michigan in 2001. There are many career paths a graduate can take with that degree. While most people head into consulting or investment banking, Winkel chose commercial real estate because he said he always had a keen interest in the field, and he felt it would bring him some personal gratification and a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

“To me, it’s a perfect combination of being able to use general business skills, but then combine that with the creativity of creating a place and designing it. And then the best part for me is, at the end of the day being able to take a step back and say, ‘I was a part of this,’ and be able to look at it and touch it. And then say, ‘This is here, in part, because of my involvement,’” he said.

“Not only is it a place that I’m proud of, but it’s a place that somebody else is proud of — somebody who lives there or rents an apartment, or shops there or has an office there. At the end of the day, it’s their own.”

The company name, Kelwin Properties, doesn’t represent an important person, time, place or event in Winkel’s life. The name is simply the two syllables of Winkel reversed, and there isn’t any more significance to it than that.

“There is not. There is not,” he said with a chuckle.

“My wife, Erin, and I sat down when I decided to go out on my own and tried to think of what we could call this thing. It was a joint effort between the two of us, and that’s what we came up with.”

Erin Winkel teaches freshman English at Byron Center High School. The couple has two children: daughter Brecken, who is going on 3 years old, and a 1-year-old son, Bennett. In his spare time, Winkel skis on water and snow, plays hockey and competes in a tri-athletic sport called adventure racing. The game requires him to bicycle, row and run a set course in a race against the clock, an event that is similar to what millions watch on the CBS-TV show, “The Amazing Race.”

“You know, that’s funny because Erin and I always talk about (the show). We say we’d make a great team on that,” he said.

Besides being on a TV show with his wife someday, CQ asked Winkel what he would like to accomplish in the future. His answer went well beyond attaining a personal achievement. It also may have gone well beyond the expected response from someone who is still two years shy of his 30th birthday.

“I think Grand Rapids is just right at the edge of taking off. There has been an incredible amount of investment into the area, and I think that is just a great launching pad for people to realize the benefits of urban living, urban shopping and just being downtown,” he said.

“I guess I’d like to get people to see the benefit of that and get enough of a critical mass downtown to where we can draw more people here. And not just have them come down for events, but to be here.” CQX

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