Building Grand Rapids: Part 2, growing and greening

Like many American cities that struggled to save their downtowns in the ‘60s, Grand Rapids’ fling with Urban Renewal did little to restore its place as a thriving destination. But with thoughtful and intentional investment, GR's buildings began and continue to rise to the occasion.
Like many American cities that struggled to save their downtowns in the ‘60s, Grand Rapids’ fling with Urban Renewal did little to restore its place as a thriving destination. However, local city leaders, developers, and builders continued to plan, invest, and build. Events like the annual June Festival of the Arts (1970), destinations like Rosa Parks Circle (1995), and entertainment venues like the Van Andel Arena (1996) and DeVos Place (2003) began bringing people back downtown. Meanwhile, downtown’s buildings began rising to the occasion.

“While our firm has had the opportunity to build new buildings from the early 1900’s through today, we’ve also seen a number of updates taking place on circa 1980 and 1990s buildings,” says Josh Szymanski, PE, chief strategy officer, Owen-Ames-Kimble Co. (O-A-K). “It’s great to be able to renovate something our predecessors built 100 years ago like McKay tower–these had a heck of a lot of physical labor and craftsmanship put into them originally. Luckily we were able to save much of that today. Nowadays, we see more glass and steel.”

McKay TowerThe nonprofit sector has also played a big part in downtown’s revitalization. Examples include the Civic Theatre, which, in 1979, combined four historic buildings, the Wenham Building (1878), the Hull Building (1890), the Botsford Building (1892), and the Meijer Majestic Theatre (1903), that were subsequently renovated in 2004. Just south of downtown, The Grand Rapids Ballet renovated an abandoned bus garage into a rehearsal space and school facility. In addition, Dwelling Place renovated eight structures into affordable and subsidized apartments along South Division Avenue’s Heartside District, as well as in other locations, like the old Ferguson Hospital (1929) on Sheldon Street.

“The building was gifted by Spectrum Health. Dwelling Place took over the structure and we did a renovation and addition. We found a real cool skylight under a solid ceiling that we restored and brought it back to use,” says Craig Datema, CEO and chairman of Triangle Inc. “Dwelling Place had a big part of making Grand Rapids what it is today. The Arena District and Heartside had been left alone for many years. With the attraction of the arena the area suddenly became viable.”

Building a solid future for the urban core

O-A-K, Triangle Inc., and others have also been involved in updating trade-tired downtown buildings constructed in the ‘80s to expand the Class A office space and amenities that attract new tenants. O-A-K’s recent projects include 99 Monroe (Franklin Partners / KPMG Building) and 250 Monroe (CWD / Calder Plaza Building). Triangle has completed projects at 40 Pearl (Trust Building), 50 Louis (Trade Center Building), 125 Ottawa (Ledyard Building), Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), and 300 Ottawa.

99 Monroe, photograph courtesy Owen-Ames-Kimball Co.

“We need to up our game to compete with Detroit and Chicago (for nationwide firms),” Szymanski says. “Downtown development started this race to up the bar and create the best office space around—and that’s good for Grand Rapids. All of these renovations have attracted tenants and helped fill buildings.”

Currently underway, O-A-K’s 50 Monroe project is renovating both an ‘80s and early 1900s building within one project. Removing the connector and curtain-wall skin added in 1985 revealed the original turn-of-the-century structure. The project is bringing it back to life while uncovering 120 years of history along the way.

“As we watch growth in Grand Rapids, we’re seeing most of the few remaining surface parking lots being considered for new buildings, filling in the remainder of the urban core,” Szymanski says. “We are well on our way to this great mix of historic streets, sandwiched between modern structures like the GRAM, Van Andel Institute, and others that blend history with a modern, growing culture.”

“Even though Josh and I are younger—we’re millennials— it’s neat to see the mix of older buildings and brand new buildings coming out of the ground,” adds his colleague, Adam Tweedy, estimator with O-A-K. “Our office is in the heart of it along upper Monroe. To be able to walk around and see different types of architecture is really cool.”

He believes that as the downtown area continues its revitalization with more residential buildings, population density will increase as will walkability, which in turn will drive retail and restaurant success.

“When you look at people moving to this area, the numbers of influx in Michigan is primarily in Kent County for the lifestyle,” he notes.

“We are going to continue to see the revitalization of 60s to 80s buildings,” says Szymanski. “Many are currently in the planning mode. When I look at a map, just about every surface lot is at play or in discussion. It won’t be too long before there’s not a surface lot left.”

LEEDing the way

When looking back at the building history of Grand Rapids, a major peak on the timeline is its recognition as the 2006 LEED Capital of the United States. Keith Winn, LEED AP BD+C, ID+C, LEED Fellow and president of Catalyst Partners, was on the ground floor making this exciting designation happen. He got involved in the United States Green Building Council in 1994 and founded Catalyst Partners in 2002. The firm supports architects, builders, engineers, and construction management firms seeking to achieve building performance goals as well as certification in LEED, WELL, Fitwel, Living Building Challenge, Enterprise Green Communities, BREEAM, and Green Globes.

Keith Winn, photograph by Adam Bird.

When Mayor Heartwell was elected, Winn participated as one of the advisors on the Environmental Advisory Council that Heartwell quickly established. The group created green building policy for the city. In 2004, Heartwell signed on to US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. As a result of that policy, the City built the first LEED-certified municipal building in the world: the Grand Rapids Environmental Services Building.

“Mayor Heartwell was a huge advocate for sustainability in all dimensions. As a mayor, he could not require it, but as a leader he could inspire and encourage,” Winn says. “Mayor Bliss has really picked up the baton and is charging forward.”

Winn notes that impetus built as Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Cascade Engineering got on board with the green building movement. Local philanthropists, like the late Peter M. Wege, made LEED certification a requirement when funding nonprofit building projects. Local educational institutions like Grand Valley State University, Calvin College, and Aquinas College signed on to the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment.

LEED means using or re-using certain types of cinder blocks and other building materials. Photograph by Adam Bird.“Wege had a huge focus on LEED,” Datema says. “He made LEED Certification as a condition of donating to building projects so many of the nonprofits were willing to achieve the standards, which created opportunity for architects and contractors.

While the nation has caught up to Grand Rapids in LEED Certification—and many building projects now shy away from it because of the costs of the certification—the sustainable practices this movement introduced are now the routine standard for local builders and developers.

“We have to build sustainability into all of our culture. It’s the right thing to do,” Datema says. “When we first starting doing LEED, leaders of huge companies nationally were not interested. Five years later, they were asking, ‘Have you guys heard about this LEED stuff?’ Grand Rapids was definitely in the forefront. In large part, that was due to the philanthropic community. Then the office furniture manufacturers got very much behind the program, Herman Miller, Steelcase. This brought an educational awareness to the architects and contractors.”

Building a resilient future

Winn and his colleague, Matthew VanSweden, LEED® AP BD+C, integrative designer with Catalyst Partners, are enthusiastic about how the City, non-profits, and educational institutions have embraced green building. They are also encouraged that many sustainable building practices are the norm across the local building industry. However, they agree that more buy-in is needed from the commercial sector as well as more options for sustainable homes and apartments.

Matthew VanSweden, photograph by Adam Bird.

VanSweden notes that building affordable housing that meets green standards, especially around energy efficiency, would be a logical next step for Grand Rapids, not only to decrease the City’s energy footprint but also to reduce income-challenged residents’ energy bills.

“If we can get affordable homes in the net-zero space, utility bills will be low and that frees up resources for education, health, and well-being,” he says. “We’ve focused on the building level for the past ten or fifteen years. Now we are thinking about the interconnected networks of buildings, infrastructure, waste water, and electricity grid across the infrastructure. Climate change has evolved from a hypothetical scenario to a real scenario. Building stock plays an important role. A building that can operate without supports for electricity and water becomes more resilient in the event of a catastrophe. If the grid goes down, it can still work.”

“Building sustainably is good economically. It attracts business and promotes our community,” Winn concludes. “It also provides healthy, sustainable lifestyle choices. Take the bus, walk or bike to work, go to our huge Millennium Park which is bigger than New York’s Central Park. Grand Rapids is a rich and great place to live. We have the opportunity to do even better.”

Looking back on the history of building in Grand Rapids, the past does speak to taking indigenous lands, building segregated neighborhoods, and demolishing small businesses and homes for freeways and urban renewal. Currently, the City wrestles with gentrification and rising housing costs. With professionals like Datema, Winn, Van Sweden, Tweedy, and Szymanski leading the way, the future can continue to be built sustainably, with a plan and policies that make Grand Rapids a better place for all of its residents to call home.

“Constructing the future” is a new 12-part series from Rapid Growth that will explore issues facing, and related to, West Michigan’s construction industry and the numerous organizations, trends, and innovations seeking to create positive advances in our community. The series is sponsored by Triangle Associates, a West Michigan-based construction company that provides construction management, design/build services, general contracting, integrated project delivery, and more to projects locally and across the country.

A working writer since 1992, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness and the arts. Stelle serves as communications manager for Our Kitchen Tableand chairs the City of Wyoming Tree Commission (The Tree Amigos). You can contact Stelle at [email protected] or via her website,

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Photo.
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