Downtown landmark’s renovation complete
Restyled Waters Center now features apartments, offices and Hilton hotel.
For more than two years, there has been a lot of activity inside the Waters Building.
From the outside, however, little evidence of the interior work was visible in the more-than-110-year-old building at Lyon Street and Ottawa Avenue NW.
Rebranded as the Waters Center, the $40-million renovation by Visser Brothers and Edmark Development Co. opened this month with 44 apartments, 130,000 square feet of office space and a 110-room Homewood Suites by Hilton.
Visser and Edmark purchased the building out of receivership for $12.75 million on Feb. 14, 2014.
Renovating a century-old building that’s been mostly half empty for nearly 50 years was a feat, said Mark Finkelstein, principal at Edmark. He said the entire building was gutted to the brick walls and maple floors, with most of the mechanical and electrical infrastructure replaced as well.
“They’d been putting Band-Aids on it since the 1980s,” said Finkelstein. “All that remained was the shell of the building, which is cool because the outside is cool and you don’t see any difference.
“Then you walk in and say, ‘Where am I?’”
Finkelstein said Concept Design did a fantastic job with blending the older and modern features on the interior.
The building was purchased with the idea of putting a hotel in one half of the building — Hilton didn’t sign on until two months after the sale closing — and four stories of office and two of apartments on the other side.
Waters Center is essentially two towers, built in 1898 in a horseshoe shape. The six-story building closed in the courtyard in 1927 as the furniture showroom, its original use, needed more space. The modern renovation eliminated much of the enclosed courtyard space and created a two-story lobby area, with the top four floors open to skylights to help provide natural lighting to hotel rooms and apartments.
“We’d done business with the hotel group before, and they trusted us, because normally they build prototypical square buildings and this time they had to conform to the building,” Finkelstein said.
Putting a hotel, apartments and offices together in one building isn’t common in Grand Rapids, but Finkelstein said it made sense for a large building in the center of a downtown.
“The idea of apartments was hot, but we didn’t want too many,” Finkelstein said. “We looked at office, but the building has been 50 percent occupied for a long time, which resulted in low rents, so we did four floors and we’re almost full. The mix felt appropriate, and it gives us something that is somewhat unique.”
When the new owners took over, Finkelstein and Visser Brothers’ President Bill Mast spent seven months talking to the building’s 55 office tenants to figure out what they wanted out of the new building and to see where it would make sense to move them — or if they even wanted to stay in the new office spaces.
In 2014, the 55 tenants took up approximately 55 percent of the nearly 300,000-square-foot building. The owners went from largest tenant to smallest figuring out their intentions.
The process finished with 11 tenants deciding it was best to leave, and demolition started on the north side of the building by the end of 2014.
“The attrition worked out really well,” Finkelstein said. “People were so scattered when we took over. They had no neighbors, and it was really quiet with dark, dingy, yellow hallways with low ceilings. It was a giant box with a lot of dead space.”
Now, the ceilings are tall, the walls range from bright white to the original brick and there’s LED lighting throughout. Each hotel room and apartment fits its individual space in the building, creating unique character throughout the building.
Once the office portion was finished and everyone moved to the north side, demolition on the south side — and construction of the hotel — could begin.
“It was a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Finkelstein said. “A lot of tenants had to move, and we had to figure out where to move them and how to phase the construction.”
The hotel space includes a saltwater pool, rooftop deck featuring the Waters View bar, a bar on the second floor called Lew’s on Two, a fitness center and 24-hour convenience center. Mast told the Business Journal in a previous interview that the average stay at extended-stay hotels is six days and reservations have already been made, including one executive slated to stay through the end of the year.
The building’s mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments is approximately 50 percent leased, including all of the one-bedroom units.
Now, with a large majority of the building full, Finkelstein said the two years of work have been worth it.
“It really was a puzzle, trying to figure out how to fit everyone in the different slots,” Finkelstein said. “We really are pleased with the final product.”