Where History Prospers

The DA Blodgett Home for Children, once a palatial touch of classic Greek architecture in the quaint East Hills neighborhood, is getting recycled. Workers recently put up a chain link fence around the property where the building was constructed in 1908. Then they tore down two mismatched circa 1960 additions.

Now begins the highly delicate renovation – restoring massive Corinthian columns, rebuilding the ornate covered entrance, or portico, and planting an attractive public garden – that will transform the former orphanage for homeless and nameless children into modern office space in one of Grand Rapids’ hottest business districts.

The recycling of the Blodgett Home, a projected $7.4 million project, is the latest sign that the city’s future depends intimately on its past. Urban developers continue to invest billions of dollars in contemporary sky rise hotels, high-tech medical labs, and the finest modern museums money can buy.

But in the midst of all the new construction is a thriving local movement to reclaim old – and usually abandoned – historic buildings. Developers now race to find distinct structures that outlived their original purpose but are ripe for new uses. Architects and preservationists call it "adaptive reuse," and there are a growing number of impressive examples throughout the central city.

A decommissioned water treatment plant on Monroe Avenue is becoming office space. A former industrial power plant found new life as a west side restaurant. Hulking furniture factories are now stylish residential lofts. The old YMCA. Public school buildings. A 20th-century arena. The list goes on and validates a central theme of Grand Rapids’ revival: People like to live where history prospers.

“Grand Rapids has become a real showcase for historic preservation and urban redevelopment,” said Rhonda Saunders, the historic preservation specialist for the City of Grand Rapids. “People want to live in places with character. Preserving older buildings adds depth and character – both visually and emotionally – to neighborhoods and business districts.”

A Tipping Point
It also adds economic value. One dollar spent rehabilitating old buildings in Michigan, for example, generates eight more jobs than a dollar spent in manufacturing car parts, according to a 2002 report prepared by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network. The report found that rehabilitation projects added $1.7 billion and 20,252 jobs to Michigan’s economy since 1971. They also returned some $32 million in once-abandoned or dilapidated properties to local tax rolls.

Backed by such clear economic potential, the commitment to historic preservation is particularly strong now in Michigan’s second largest city. Grand Rapids-based projects comprised a full 25 percent of those applying to the state’s historic preservation tax credit program in 2005. And those developers approved by the program in 2004 invested nearly $85 million in restoration projects around the city.

“We’ve passed a tipping point,” said Sam Cummings, president of Second Story Properties. “Somebody did one project and it was viewed as successful. So then somebody did another one. Now it’s spreading like some sort of positive cancer. People are just not letting up.”

A New View
Not so long ago, the revival of downtown life meant the destruction of historic places. Building codes and bankers favored new construction over restoration. Realtors argued no one would ever live downtown, especially in converted industrial factories. And preservationists generally were perceived as crackpots. Altogether, the urban renewal movement of the '50s and '60s demolished 128 structures across a 40-acre swath of the urban core. Lost to the wrecking ball were dime stores, Keith’s Church, and the irreplaceable City Hall building originally constructed in 1888.

Some critics still argue that historic preservation is an expensive waste of time, and that designation of historic districts erodes private property rights and gentrifies neighborhoods. But for the most part those arguments prove unfounded. Designated historic districts such as Heritage Hill, Cherry Hill and Fairmount Square, for example, are some of the most diverse and attractive places to live and work in the city. The community now embraces historic preservation as a common sense way to maintain cultural roots, uphold community character and stimulate local economies.

“We’ve gone through a real change in mindset,” said Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, a co-owner of the consulting firm Past Perfect. “We’ve pretty much killed the idea that we can or should knock our old buildings down.”

Indeed, restoration and preservation of historic structures is not just a common theme flowing through the city’s 2002 Master Plan. Redevelopment projects designed to update historic buildings for modern applications now literally sit at the center of the push to revive neighborhood and business districts across the city.

The Ultimate Recycling
The Wealthy Theatre, originally built in 1911, was slated for demolition in 1989. The building had stood vacant for 20 years. The mosaic-tiled floor had fallen through to the basement. And water gushed down the interior walls during heavy rains. Neighborhood residents defeated the demolition proposal and the theatre, which reopened in 1998, is now a community arts center and movie house in the thriving East Hills area.

The Monroe Street Filtration Plant, built in 1912, is one of Grand Rapids' more highly decorated structures. Among its many honors, the American Water Works Association declared the facility “an American water landmark.” The plant, which was the first in the nation to fluoridate the public water supply, also is recognized as one of Michigan’s Top Ten Civil Engineering Achievements. Today, DeVries Property Ventures is investing more than $8.7 million to recycle this stately building, vacant since 1992, into office, commercial, and residential space.

The old YMCA, closed in August 2005 when the athletic club moved to its new home across town, was built in 1914. Second Story Properties renamed the eight-story brick building the Fitzgerald and launched a $20 million project to convert it into 50 luxury condominiums.

The highly detailed building at 118 Commerce in the Heartside District once housed the Coliseum, Grand Rapids’ first major gathering place for public events. But developers recently recycled the building into office space. Today it houses the headquarters of the Heart of West Michigan United Way.

Union High School, located at 900 Broadway, is the oldest school facility in Grand Rapids. Originally constructed in 1872, Union High barely survived construction of the downtown freeway system. Today Pioneer Construction is redeveloping the building into 180 west side condos.

It’s It's been a strange evolution for the Martineau Building at 128 South Division. Originally built in 1928, the Martineau housed the Ideal Electric Company, then Miller Billards Parlor, followed by the Valentine Furniture Company, and the Pink Poodle Laundry Mat.

After sitting vacant for several decades, and a $10 million renovation in 2004, the Martineau reopened in 2005 with eight modern lofts dedicated to living and work space for painters, photographers and other artists. Now the Martineau project is helping to drive the resurgence of the Heartside district as the artistic epicenter of downtown Grand Rapids.

Developers also have seized on the city’s historic furniture factories to generate new housing opportunities. The former Berkey and Gay furniture factory, built circa 1860, found new life as condos, offices, and a restaurant/bar in the North Monroe district. A similar rescue effort renewed the American Seating factory, where the power plant was converted into a night club.

Stay tuned to the empty Olds Manor on the corner of Michigan and Monroe. Thirty years ago the building risked the wrecking ball. That's not so true today, according to Heather Aldridge, the neighborhood revitalization director for Dwelling Place, the nonprofit development firm based in the Heartside district.

“Historic preservation is the ultimate recycling,” Aldridge said.

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