DDA Funds JA Building

April 11, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — A second project on a corner of Fulton Street and Division Avenue got a financial boost last week from the Downtown Development Authority. But this time the board’s funding focus was on the east side of the intersection.

“There has been a whole series of development plans for this building,” said Jay Fowler, DDA executive director.

Developer Robert Tol is getting ready to renovate the exterior and the surrounding property of the former Junior Achievement building at 2 E. Fulton St., which is across Division Avenue from The Gallery on Fulton project being developed by Two West Fulton.

Tol, doing business as Two East Fulton for his project, asked the DDA for a total of $85,000 in two grants — a $50,000 grant for restoring a portion of the façade to historic standards, and a $35,000 grant to fill the area below the property’s sidewalk along Division. Tol told the DDA it will cost him $381,000 to complete those two tasks.

The board awarded him $60,000 instead of the $85,000 he requested. The DDA gave him the $35,000 grant to fill the areaway. But the board only awarded him a $25,000 building reuse grant for the façade work because he isn’t doing a complete makeover of the art-deco structure.

“I think he is lined up and ready to do this, this spring,” said Fowler.

Although Tol didn’t get the amount of assistance he hoped for from the DDA, city commissioners and the city’s Brownfield Redevelopment Authority approved his request for brownfield tax credits, with the most recent approval coming in February in the form of an amendment to the initial brownfield he received in 2005. The state also has to approve the change.

Tol had planned to renovate the two-story building for office and retail space. He told city commissioners in early February that a new bank was in line to lease a portion of both floors and that he was hoping to land a grocery store to lease the rest of the space.

The bank he was referring to is Grand River Bank, owned by Grand River Commerce Inc. The bank had 2 East Fulton listed as its “principal business office” in its SB-2 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in November.

“We have a contract with them, but we don’t have a lease signed,” Tol told city commissioners in February.

Three weeks later, however, the building’s address was crossed out in the bank’s state charter application.

City commissioners had tabled their first scheduled vote to amend Tol’s brownfield in late January, a week before they unanimously approved it. During those two meetings, three commissioners criticized the condition of the JA building and the property. Two commissioners also said they didn’t consider Tol’s plan of filling the structure with a bank and retail space the best use for the site.

Those remarks came before commissioners amended the brownfield and before the bank crossed out the building’s address as its principal business office.

“He had a bank signed for half of this building but unfortunately the bank backed out,” said Fowler last week, who added that there weren’t any apparent tenants for the space.

Tol, who has owned the building for four years, said he has spent at least $300,000 on the vacant structure in the last 18 months. He told city commissioners in February that he would begin the renovation work in the spring or sell the building.

Fowler said the building reuse grant awarded to Tol was the first of its type in the DDA’s newly expanded area.

“This is a very important grant,” said Mayor George Heartwell, also a DDA member. “The building is an eyesore that sits on a very important corner.”

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