Castles in the Sky

The term ‘white box’ might not evoke anything for the average person other than the container that holds their Kung Pao chicken, but to someone shopping for a seven-figure penthouse condominum, the phrase represents a blank canvas on which they can create their urban dream home in the sky.

“Right now, it’s just a big, empty room,” says Walter Bulkowski, spokesperson for The Residences at McKay Tower, referring to the space reserved for the penthouse on the 16th floor of Grand Rapids’ first skyscraper. “The buyer will meet with a designer and an architect, and we’ll be able to deliver their vision within 90 days.”

A narrow vision might be the only constraint when customizing a penthouse in downtown Grand Rapids. Money is no object to the typical buyer of a premier penthouse space, which can cost up to and over five times more than other downtown luxury condos.

“If you’re going to spend a lot of money on a condo, you want to be proud to call it home,” says Nick Koster, vice president of development for CWD Real Estate. His company is converting the old YMCA building at 27 Library St. NE in Grand Rapids into 39 condos, including five penthouse units — each priced around $1 million. “You want something that is very grand, high quality and elegant.”

The growing number of penthouses dotting the downtown skyline certainly aren’t lacking when it comes to grandeur. Rachael Ruiz and Brice Bossardet’s penthouse occupying the top three floors of 65 Monroe Center boasts 4,000 square feet, including three bedrooms, three-and-a-half bathrooms, a living room, family room and bar area, accented by two fireplaces, a spiral staircase and an abundance of tall windows.

“We built and designed the condo ourselves, with a ‘sky is the limit’ mentality,” says Ruiz. “When you start from scratch, you can do anything.”

The young couple previously lived in a condo across the street, where they stared at the vacant Central Bank building for a year before doing something about it. Bossardet, owner of real estate firm Virgin Soil, purchased the building and renovated it into condominiums, adding an additional level on top to increase the size of the penthouse.

The couple’s new space — twice as large as their former dwelling — boasts luxurious touches such as radiant heating, Italian cabinetry, original brick walls, chandeliers salvaged from former downtown icon the Sierra Room, two balconies, an attached garage, a private elevator and a unique storage space, which Ruiz swears wasn’t by design.

“It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but the closet is enormous,” Ruiz sheepishly confesses. “It actually happened as a fluke… it’s two stories tall.”

Picking a perch
Deciding on which level to hang their favorite Chanel suit isn’t the only selection faced by penthouse owners. Before they even get to the point of choosing between marble and concrete, bamboo and mahogany, they first have to decide in which building top to reside.

Obviously, the selection is limited, but downtown penthouse addresses are currently available in McKay Tower, The Fitzgerald, River House and Union Square, among others. Prices range from $340,000 to well over $1 million, with floor plans of 1,945 to 4,000 square feet.

Real estate brokers will say that the choice boils down to three things: location, location, location. If a buyer wants to be in the heart of downtown, the 2,780-square-foot McKay Tower penthouse is a great choice, with its 760-square-foot deck and 270-degree views of the city.

If one would like to be in the center of it all, but with a little more privacy and a place to park a car or two, one of the Fitzgerald units would be ideal. And for those who don’t mind getting a little exercise while walking a few blocks to partake in all that Grand Rapids has to offer, River House or Union Square might be more fitting.

But there’s obviously more to it than just location — it’s the whole package that fits what a potential buyer is searching for.

“It’s a unique project,” Sam Cummings, managing partner of CWD Real Estate, says of The Fitzgerald. “There’s a unique person who wants what we have to offer, because it’s a unique project. You can’t walk down the street and compare it to something else.”

Jason Juberg spends his days in Portage as the president of American Benefit Concepts, so he didn’t purchase his Union Square penthouse based on its convenient location. All the downtown penthouses are equally far away from his office, and none are as “downtown” as his previous residence on Monroe Center. He based his decision to buy one of the largest penthouses in Union Square on one important factor.

“Indoor parking,” Juberg says with a smile. “I bought this condo for my car.”

In addition to the $625,000 he invested in his three-story penthouse — including extra space, remodeling, professional design, posh furniture and space-age stereo equipment — Juberg also paid an extra $25,000 for secure garage parking for his 2008 Ferrari F430 Spider.

He considers his location to be close enough to the action. “If you can see downtown from your window or your deck, you’re downtown,” he says.

Those looking for the best of both worlds — walking distance to entertainment and a secure place to keep the Ferrari — may turn to The Fitzgerald. Located next to the Grand Rapids Public Library and including 68 covered parking spots, The Fitzgerald has already sold three penthouses on the ninth floor.

“One of the penthouse owners actually has six parking spaces, and another has four,” says Koster.

Space originally earmarked for four townhouses was converted into two more penthouses, based on the interest in the larger, high-priced units. These two remaining condos are on the fifth floor of the east wing, each occupying about 3,600 square feet. These penthouses are being built in the space that previously housed the YMCA’s racquetball courts, and plenty of tall windows have been added to the 20-foot walls. The floor of the racquetball court has been preserved, and the eventual owner can choose to keep it as a nostalgic design feature.

A private balcony off one of the three bedrooms overlooks the urban rooftop garden, which is a 2,500-square-foot rooftop garden shared by all of The Fitzgerald owners that will feature a hot tub, secluded picnic settings, a fountain and plenty of green space.

“The whole Fitzgerald is really a penthouse,” says Cummings, possibly launching the building’s next tagline.

Sub-prime need not apply
So who are the people purchasing these million-dollar penthouses?

“They are people who are not only upwardly mobile, but truly mobile,” says McKay Tower’s Bulkowski. “Maybe someone who lives on the lakeshore but works in town and would like to have a second place here, or maybe young professionals with successful careers. It’s someone who understands and enjoys the value of living downtown.”

Cummings agrees with Bulkowski’s description. “The penthouse owners obviously have some disposable income, and are very successful, passionate people, who are experience-driven, creative and sophisticated,” he says.

Juberg, Ruiz and Bossardet fit the profile, though the thirty-somethings are a bit younger than the typical buyer. Juberg previously lived in a smaller condo in City View, but likes being among the younger crowd at Union Square.

“Just after I moved in, I threw a euchre party and invited everyone from the fourth and sixth floors,” says Juberg, whose penthouse has more than enough space to accommodate the 30 people who showed up.

Ruiz and Bossardet, who are expecting their first child in February, are often asked how they will be able to live in the city with a family.

“Without having to do the work that goes into owning a house, you have more time to spend with your family and kids. It’s just more convenient for our on-the-go lifestyle,” says Ruiz. “We have a lot of space ... I’m not concerned about it.”

And there is one other thing common to penthouse owners…it helps not to be afraid of heights.

Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in West Michigan. She is also the marketing director at Ada-based CUSO Development Company. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about Grand Rapids' highest-altitude spa.


Rachel Ruiz and husband Brice Bossardet

Their roomy kitchen

Rachel Ruiz and Brice Bossardet

Jason Juberg's bedroom at Union Square

Juberg's amazing Ferrari F430

Juberg's kitchen and view to St. Adalberts' Cathedral

Jason Juberg

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly is a commercial photographer and owner of The Photography Room. He has been Rapid Growth's managing photographer since it was launched in April of 2006.  

You can follow his photography adventures on his blog here.

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