The reactivation of an urban area
Taking a different path let 616 Development bring the Kendall Building back.
Sometimes an urban rehabilitation project is about more than bricks and mortar. Sometimes it’s about attitude and approach.
The year-long effort to successfully turn the decades-long vacant Kendall Building into a 24-hour residential, office and commercial structure probably wouldn’t have happened without the right attitude and approach.
For years, developers expressed an interest in taking on the project of restoring the five-story structure. Legend has it, though, that none could come to terms on a sales deal with the building’s owner, James Azar. However, 616 Development founder and leader Derek Coppess eventually did.
Coppess acknowledged the most difficult part of the journey to bring the building back to life was buying it. Whether true or not, Azar was perceived by some in the field as being hard to deal with, but instead of letting that mindset affect him, Coppess adopted a different attitude. And that outlook led him into taking a different approach as he developed a relationship with Azar.
“I would love to say that it was some masterful negotiation and I’m some master at it. But really it just came down to we did everything he wanted. We learned early in the process that Jim didn’t need to sell — he wasn’t a motivated seller. He thought he had a fair price for the building, which I agreed with, and he never changed gears,” said Coppess.
“We went into it knowing that if we couldn’t do that first part, we needed to walk away. So we needed to be real comfortable with being able to follow through on the tight timeline that he needed to see happen.”
Coppess walked Azar through the Kendall while construction was going on and said the former owner was impressed with what was happening. “He was just blown away by the building and what we were doing with it. It was a really cool thing,” he said.
“It really comes down to just respecting the fact that these guys (like Azar) have held these assets for this long and, not making judgments that they haven’t done anything with it. They have a deep respect for history. They’ve done a ton of developments. That’s why you don’t judge a situation before you’re in it. Keeping an open mind and not having a ton of pride was what unlocked it for us.”
616 Development held an open house earlier this month that more than 400 attended. They were eager to get a good look at the new 616 Lofts at the Kendall. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell was among those curiosity seekers; he reportedly rescheduled a trip to Washington, D.C., to check out the finished project that took a year to complete.
“To see one of our leaders do that for little ole Derek and the Kendall Building meant a lot to me. We’re thankful to be a part of this whole thing,” said Coppess.
The building at 16 Monroe Center on downtown’s east end is full: The dozen apartments are occupied, 616 has moved into the second floor, and Osteria Rossa is carving out its ground-floor space. The new Italian restaurant should be open by the middle of January.
Coppess said the Kendall certainly wasn’t the biggest project his firm has undertaken, but it was a good fit because it represented what 616 does: create 24/7 urban communities. He explained that with the Kendall done and the adjacent Monument Park nearly done, that end of downtown isn’t a scary place anymore.
“You couldn’t turn left or right quick enough to get out of there. Now people will feel more comfortable walking across Division because the park is going to be beautiful and the restaurant in our building is going to spill out into the park. We have architectural lighting on the building, so people are going to feel safer crossing Division at night, and the park will be lit up,” he said.
“So with the Kendall Building, it wasn’t just a building: It was a whole reactivation of an area. This spring when the grass is green and people are having wine on the terrace, it’s going to be an incredible visual for people driving and walking by. They are going to want to stay and linger.”
Coppess also said the success 616 Lofts has had in filling the firm’s buildings with residents has been the key in securing financing for its projects. Instead of having to show a lender that 616 has a ground-floor tenant signed up, he said banks have gone with the firm because the upper levels are filled with people.
That situation convinced the local office of First National Bank of Michigan to back the Kendall project. “So we’re able to go a little backwards and move forward with a project with an understanding that we will lease the upper floors and we’ll have a year to lease the ground floor. And we were able to do that,” he said.
Monica Clark heads 616 Lofts, and she said the waiting list for an apartment in one of the company’s buildings has reached 1,040 individuals.
The Kendall project also received financial support from the state and the city.
“Our city has some really good people in leadership,” said Coppess.
Coppess said there was probably more structural work involved in converting the Kendall than in his previous projects. Although the structure was fundamentally sound, he said more steel was added to give it more structural support.
First Companies managed the work and brought the project in on time and on budget. Lott3Metz Architecture designed the renovation. Both are Grand Rapids firms.
“They’re great to work with,” said Coppess. “With the experts we have on our team, that part didn’t make me lose sleep at night.”