Construction, Economic Development, and Real Estate

Orion’s project has déjà vu effect

Arena Place nearly completes what began about 15 years ago.

July 26, 2013
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The $28 million Arena Place is a continuation of a 15-year campaign John Wheeler has carried out in the area south of Van Andel Arena. Courtesy Orion Construction

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell was one of a few dozen local officials and business leaders on hand for Orion Construction’s recent reception to reveal the details of its new $28 million, mixed use development called Arena Place.

“Isn’t it astounding to see what has happened south of Fulton Street in the last decade and a half? We’re rebuilding this area. This is the heart of Grand Rapids,” said the mayor.

Heartwell made his remarks on the sixth floor of the building at 25 Ottawa Ave. NW, once known as Arena Station. That’s what people called the building back in 1997, when Orion Construction’s director of business development, John Wheeler, shared his vision for the blocks south of Van Andel Arena with the Business Journal — the same blocks to which Heartwell was referring.

Wheeler, then an integral part of Rockford Construction, stood on the same sixth floor of Arena Station, which his firm was renovating at the time, and told the Business Journal he could see block after block of dilapidated and vacant warehouses south of the arena being converted into one of the city’s most vibrant sectors.

Wheeler and his partner at Rockford Construction, Michael VanGessel, then hooked up with Peter Secchia and the Richard DeVos family to redevelop those blocks one building at a time. Their most notable project was Cherry Street Landing, which put about a dozen structures south of the arena back into play and back on the tax roll.

“We’ve had a multitude of success in the city, but we’re running out of space,” said Wheeler at the Orion reception.

Wheeler served as the master of ceremonies, so to speak, for Orion Construction when he told the influential crowd that the new Arena Place will be a $28 million, 210,000-square-foot development that will give downtown its first Class A office address since 1993, 75 market-rate residential units and about 13,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space stretched across the base of the structure.

Wheeler then introduced the building’s first office tenants by calling Hanon McKendry and Mindscape partners with Orion in the aggressive project.

“We’ve had our offices in the Arena South area even before the arena was built,” said Bill McKendry, founder and chief creative officer of Hanon McKendry.

“It’s been amazing to see the transformation over the past 20 years,” he added, “and it’s going to be very gratifying to partner in the continued renewal and transformation of this area in years ahead.”

Wheeler then announced that Mertiage Hospitality will locate its first downtown restaurant in 5,800 square feet at the building’s corner at Ottawa Avenue and Weston Street. He also called Meritage President and CEO Robert Schermer Jr. a partner in the project.

“We are very excited about the opportunity to create a unique restaurant presence in downtown Grand Rapids and about the possibility of another innovative partnership with Orion,” said Schermer.

Wheeler noted his firm and Schermer’s hospitality group are working together on Meritage’s new Freighters Restaurant, which will be part of a new $24 million convention center in Port Huron.

Wheeler also said the financing of Arena Place would be investor driven by a $20 million loan, $3 million in private equity, and the rest coming from available incentives such as a brownfield designation. He then thanked city officials and members of the Downtown Development Authority, which is selling the Area 1 parking lot to Orion for the development, for their encouragement and partnership.

“We’re getting a lot of national attention and most of it is due to Mayor George Heartwell,” he said.

“This is great news for our city. It’s a great investment. Welcome to the neighborhood,” said Heartwell in return.

Concept Design is the architect for the project and will seek LEED certification for it. The development also will offer below-ground parking as well as a surface lot on the building’s west side.

Orion Construction plans to start work in December and have everything done in the spring of 2015.

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