Focus, Construction, and Real Estate

The perfect use has been found for old downtown structure

616 Development has begun a long-awaited revival of the Kendall Building.

December 8, 2012
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The perfect use has been found for old downtown structure
616 Development is behind the renovation of the five-story Kendall Building on Monroe Center in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. Courtesy 616 Development
If you wondered what the collective “hooray” was all about when it echoed through downtown recently, it was a loud and gratifying cheer for 616 Development.

The urban development firm, headed by founder Derek Coppess, has begun its renovation effort to turn the unsightly, dilapidated Kendall Building at 16 Monroe Center NW into an attractive and useful address.

Up until a few weeks ago, the 132-year-old, five-story structure had sat vacant and boarded up for the better part of three decades. The building was considered by merchants and public officials as the biggest blight in an otherwise eye-catching downtown.

“The building has been an eyesore for the community for many years,” said Kristopher Larson, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, in September when the board approved a 10-year property-tax abatement for the project.

616 will spend about $4 million on the restoration that will produce 616 Lofts at Kendall, a mixed-use development that offers residential, office and retail space. The finished product will have two retail suites on the ground floor, office space on the second level, and a dozen apartments on floors three, four and five. A deck will be built on the roof, with storage space and a common area for tenants in the basement.

But perhaps the biggest endorsement for the project comes from 616 Development itself: The firm and its property-management division, 616 Lofts, will occupy the second floor. What could be a better confidence-builder for potential tenants than having the landlord in the building?

“We’re moving our office into the second floor of the Kendall Building, and that will happen maybe a little earlier than the residential units are finished. We’ve outgrown our space so we’re motivated to move,” said Coppess.

Interior demolition work, including the removal of asbestos, was wrapping up when the Business Journal spoke with Coppess.

“Then we move right into construction and we are on a track to have units come on line in late summer or early fall, depending on a couple of different variables,” he said.

Coppess felt the project’s mixed-use layout exemplified the perfect use of an older renovated urban structure, but he seemed particularly proud of the use that has been designated for the basement. It complements the company’s goal, which is to create a downtown community among its residential and business tenants.

“It’s a 100 percent usable basement. The basement has a brick floor — it’s beautiful. It has a 9-foot ceiling. We’ll have a resident community room down there with kind of a rec area and a multi-use room where all of our tenants from all of our properties will have access,” he said.

“That’s part of what we try to do. We try to create common areas in all of our projects, so if you live above Flanagan’s, you can come to the Kendall Building. It’s a way to keep building our community.”

First Companies is managing the construction work and Lott3Metz Architecture is designing the project, which had a number of challenges to overcome. Greg Metz, a partner with Ted Lott in the design firm, said one is the building’s tiny footprint. He explained that finding a way to produce a positive cash flow from a five-story building with such a narrow foundation is difficult because it limits the number of units that can go into the structure. “But Derek did it,” he said.

The biggest test however, was meeting the building and fire codes.

“After a thorough analysis of the fire code and existing building code, we were able to devise a solution that met the health, safety and welfare requirements of those codes. Our solution allowed us to utilize existing exits, which saved space,” said Metz of his meetings with city officials that included Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong.

“This was probably the most critical part because it enabled us to maximize the small footprint while maintaining safety,” Metz said.

Those challenges were known before the design process began. However, another popped up after the work got started, when Metz said he discovered that the building had gone through a major renovation sometime after 1900.

“That renovation significantly altered the main-floor façade and made it asymmetrical by shifting a major brick tier to the east,” he said.

“By doing that, it changed the structural system, and that required us to reinforce areas that we were not expecting to and it required a significant amount of creativity to overcome this obstacle,” said Metz.

Once the work is done, Metz feels the entire façade will be returned to its original beauty and the new storefronts will breathe life back into the building.

“Having the windows lit up at night will enliven a critical intersection of Grand Rapids,” he said. “The city was great to work with. While I feel we did a stellar job on our code analysis, they were very receptive and willing to work with us on our findings.”

The Kendall Building, which opened in 1880, was built by George Kendall, who came here in 1846 as a businessman in the grocery field. He also served as a village trustee, an alderman and a school-board member.

The structure is situated near Monument Square, which honors the city’s Civil War veterans, and Veterans Memorial Park. The DDA plans to improve both of those sites, possibly as early as next year.

The building offers 15,000 square feet across its five floors and is sandwiched between Reynolds & Sons Sporting Goods and the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

“We’re real excited about that project. That project, from a total project-cost standpoint, is smaller than our target,” said Coppess.

“It’s such a key piece for the city, and we kind of look at it as a microcosm of what we do. It’s a miniature version of the perfect use, floor by floor, with retail on the bottom, office on the second and then three floors of residential.”

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