Old Buildings, New Economy

With all the cranes hovering over Grand Rapids, it’s “in with the new” across much of the city. But innovative developers have discovered ways to attract the new economy while preserving the old character and heritage of Grand Rapids.

The Grand River is flanked by buildings that were once home to major manufacturing operations. While the production that once shaped the city’s economy dwindles, business owners and residents are finding that former plants and factories make for great homes and bricks-and-mortar operations for everything from law firms and entertainment companies to internet service providers and healthcare businesses.

“As our economy – and by this I mean the Grand Rapids economy, the Michigan economy, and the economy of the United States – continues to transition away from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge- and service-based economy, the need for expansive buildings to house large manufacturing operations decreases,” said Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. “The fact that developers have found new uses for these buildings, in a way that serves the community’s demand, is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit. It also gives hope to many current residents as once ‘dead spots’ are reborn and given a new life.”

Three buildings in particular – the Berkey & Gay Furniture Co. on Monroe, the Wolverine Brass Works, also on Monroe, and the American Seating Company’s former power plant on Broadway Avenue – exemplify the evolution. Once the anchor of heavy industry, the buildings all are now thriving mixed-use developments.

Gordon Olson served as the historian for the City of Grand Rapids for a quarter-century. He said that, taken together, the renovated buildings reflect an important period in the city’s history.

“They stand as a reminder of when Grand Rapids was known for its furniture,” Olson said.

Now, these buildings house new mainstays of the local economy. The American Seating Park’s Clark Place still holds the corporate offices for American Seating Company. But more recent tenants include healthcare firms like PPOM, ConAgra Foods, and Axios, Inc., a company that provides human resource services. Attached to the building are the Off-Broadway Apartments and The Level, a nightclub. On the fourth floor of Clark Place, the dimly-lit hallways of exposed piping and concrete pillars lead to condos and a few smaller businesses.

Exposing New Opportunities
Corey Niemchick, owner of the film production company Storytelling Pictures, relocated to this top floor of Clark Place two years ago from a space near Madison Avenue and Cherry Street. Why did he choose the American Seating Park?

“For one thing, it has been beautifully renovated. It has that Chicago loft, kind of warehouse feel,” he said.

The nature of his company, he added, lends itself well to the artistic feel of the place. The location also offers another perk: A large sign in the front of Clark Place announces Renaissance Tax Zone Savings to prospective tenants. Down the street, construction crews are renovating a former school to make Union Square Condos which, according to the sign out front, will boast 12 foot ceilings, wood floors, and “Tax Free Ren Zones.” Obviously, the tax-free part is a huge selling point.

“It’s the perfect location,” Niemchick said. "I can see downtown from my window, and rent is reasonable. I consider it downtown without the downtown expense."

The historian and the artistic entrepreneur aren’t the only ones who like what they see:

“Exposed brick walls and the preservation of an old building’s character appeal to many individuals that are interested in urban dwelling or patronizing downtown businesses,” said the Chambers' Englehart. “So, from a business standpoint, as long as consumers demand this from developers, we will continue to see this type redevelopment and revitalization of old buildings.”

Tale of Two Cities
Under 131 and across 6th Street Bridge from the American Seating Park, sit the Brass Works building and former Berkey & Gay Co., now known as The Boardwalk. In the white brick of the building spanning 900-1000 Monroe Avenue, the faint outline of the Berkey & Gay name remains.

At one time, Berkey & Gay was one of the oldest names in the US furniture industry. South High School’s 1926 yearbook features an advertisement from the Berkey & Gay Furniture Co. The ad suggests that parents entice young people to remain at home after graduation by buying new furniture sets. Entire furniture sets ranging in price from $250 to $6,000, it says, might fend of the allure of the silver flask and the jazz orchestra.

The writer of that ad probably never imagined that, 80 years later, the young people to whom they referred would occupy some of its factory, which now houses 252 apartments, as well as offices. While it isn’t the silver flask and jazz orchestra, the hip JD Reardon’s (formerly Waterworks Pub) serves up grub and liquid libations to youngsters (and some oldsters, too) until the wee hours.

“The new uses for these buildings continue to have a profound impact on the quality of life in Grand Rapids,” said Englehart, applauding the commitment of local developers who strive to preserve such buildings. “Things are happening all over downtown after 5 p.m. This is very encouraging to see again in our city.”

Just south of the former Berkey & Gay Furniture Co. is the former Wolverine Brass Works building. Its red brick and shiny windows stand out along Monroe Avenue, and to the southwest cranes are erecting Icon on Bond, new condos with a sign boasting yet another tax-free zone.

It’s a tale of two cities – one, a young 8-square mile expanse with an economy rooted in manufacturing. The other, a maturing metropolis encompassing 45-square-miles and fewer factories, but more businesses in a single space.

“I’m quite happy to see them being reused,” said Olson. “Certainly, they are not the same center of activity that they once were – that industry has left Grand Rapids. But one question we always have to ask is, ‘Has this building been used up or does it still have something left to give?’”

Because they are well-made and still sturdy, Olson said, it is fitting that these buildings be given another shot. And it seems that people are jumping at the opportunity.

Jeanne Englehart believes that the developments entice businesses to the downtown area. “These projects capitalize on the demand for downtown/urban living,” she said. “The businesses that serve downtown dwellers will naturally follow.”

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved


The massive Berkey & Gay Building looms behind the 6th St. Bridge

American Seating Park

Union Square Condominium rise above the Interstate

Berkey & Gay Building houses condos, office and retail

Brass Works Building

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