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Governor’s Awards Salute Urban Revitalization

Preservationists win for “mixed use” projects

July 19, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Pioneer Construction

Rehabilitating the long-abandoned Berkey & Gay factory in Grand Rapids into 373 apartments, a restaurant, offices, and retail space launched the rebirth of the city’s near north side.

The Granholm administration has awarded two of this year’s six Governor’s Awards for Historic Preservation to projects that strongly reflect both the philosophy behind the administration’s own Cool Cities program and a key recommendation of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. The awards for projects in Grand Rapids and Big Rapids underline the administration’s belief that so-called “mixed-use” projects, which put housing, commercial, and recreational facilities in close proximity, are a key to revitalizing declining neighborhoods and downtowns.

All six awards reinforce another belief that is basic to the Granholm administration’s economic development strategy: Historic preservation can provide a major boost to long-troubled urban areas. That point was emphasized by Dr. William Anderson, director of the Department of History, Arts and Libraries, as he presented the awards on behalf of Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, who inaugurated the program last year.

Dr. Anderson told the awardees at a June 15 ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda that historic preservation is “an important strategy for long-term economic recovery.” He added: “Historic preservation is a central plank in Cool Cities. It jump starts downtowns.”

The list of winners and Dr. Anderson’s remarks confirm that the Granholm administration is moving forward with its urban revitalization strategy without waiting for further action by the Republican-dominated state Legislature. Although lawmakers enacted several small-scale, urban-friendly bills early in the current session and have begun considering a bill establishing commerce centers — a key recommendation of the bipartisan land use leadership council — they remain badly stalled on two other top council recommendations: more-affordable housing and state funding for public transportation.

The awards ceremony, which was sponsored by the State of Michigan, also heralded restoration work in Detroit, Escanaba, Kalamazoo, and Ann Arbor Township. In a statement by the governor released in tandem with the award ceremony, which she did not attend, Ms. Granholm noted that increased historic preservation activity across the state has made it harder to choose the award winners. “I am passionate about these awards because I believe preserving Michigan’s historic resources is critical to creating vibrant, attractive spaces in which we all want to live and work,” Ms. Granholm said.

An Industrial Mix
In Grand Rapids, a company transformed two old factories, one abandoned and the other underutilized, into mixed-use downtown developments. In Big Rapids, a public-private partnership rehabilitated two downtown commercial properties into high-quality, affordable senior housing, each with dedicated retail and recreational space.

The Grand Rapids projects, which were developed by Pioneer Construction, represent a $62 million investment. The company built 440 new urban residences in two former industrial sites, the Berkey & Gay factory and the American Seating Company factory complex, located, respectively, on the city’s near north and west sides.

The Berkey & Gay Factory’s 500,000 square feet had been dormant for 50 years. But its unique architecture was still intact when Thomas Beckering, Pioneer’s owner, began considering the building in the fall of 2000. With the Grand River located right across the street, Mr. Beckering spied possibilities for the building that others did not see.

“Tom operates from a vision perspective” observed Jim Czanko, Pioneer’s sales and marketing director. “For him, the challenge of doing the project is probably greater than the project itself. He looked at what the building would do for the area.”

Mr. Czanko said that, despite the decaying buildings that surrounded the abandoned factory, he and his boss took a four-hour walk through the complex, after which Mr. Beckering promptly decided to start work on the daring project. The building now has a restaurant, office spaces, 373 new, market-rate apartments that target young urban professionals and a growing student population; it now is the epicenter of a redevelopment boom on the city’s near north side that it launched almost single-handedly.

Preservation’s Popularity
“This project is probably one of the greatest success stories in the Midwest in terms of rejuvenation,” said Mr. Czanko. “It’s now interesting to see reactions. Everybody is ready to get on the bandwagon.” 

Pioneer was also honored for further developing an underutilized industrial building complex that was still being used by the American Seating Company. The residential area just across the street was declining, but Pioneer bet that revitalizing the building would encourage American Seating to stay and, at the same time, help the west side recover. Pioneer transformed nearly 100,000 square feet of dormant space into living, working, and entertainment facilities. Mr. Czanko said that this project marked the first major renovation on downtown Grand Rapids’ west side and that the $35 million dollar investment is rejuvenating the area.

“A sense of pride is emerging,” said Mr. Czanko. “People have stopped tearing down homes. They’re painting and sprucing up the area.” 

Democrat State Representative Michael Sak, who grew up on the west side and now represents his hometown, endorsed the strategy that drove the company’s redevelopment effort, a formula that also neatly summarizes part of the Granholm administration’s urban redevelopment approach.

“They have truly committed themselves to strong redevelopment and historic preservation,” Representative Sak said of Pioneer. “Studies have shown that when historic preservation is appropriately used and implemented, it has provided for strong economic development. A good balance of old and new can only enhance the quality of life for all of our citizens.”

Seniors, a Concert Hall, and an Old School
The second award that honored the “mixed use” brand of urban revitalization went to the Big Rapids Housing Commission and Hollander Development Company, who renovated two downtown commercial buildings into high-quality and affordable senior housing.

The agency and the company assembled a wide variety of public and private funding mechanisms, including federal and state historic preservation tax credits and a $5.2 million financing package, to revamp 126,000 square feet of underutilized commercial space in the Nisbett and Fairman Buildings. The two buildings now provide 47 new residential units, 38 of which are guaranteed to be affordably priced. While the upper floors are dedicated to residential use, street-level space affords commercial and retail opportunities. Outdoor recreational facilities adjoin the two properties.

Another award recognized the rebirth and rescue of Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, the subject of a Michigan Land Use Institute special report released last October, A Civic Gift.  Restoring the truly grand old building, among the world’s finest concert halls, helped trigger a dramatic construction and restoration boom in midtown Detroit, where the hall is located. The award also capped the professional career of Detroit Symphony Orchestra bassoonist, Paul Ganson, who initiated a 30-year campaign to save, restore, and return the orchestra to the concert hall in 1970.

The restoration and expansion of the 70-year-old Escanaba Junior High School, which the Institute spotlighted in Hard Lessons, a special report released last February, earned an award for the Escanaba Public Schools and Diekema Hamann, an architectural firm in Kalamazoo. The project demonstrated to the community that restoration cost no more than constructing an entirely new building and provided the community far greater value.

Old House, Older Bridge
The state also honored a small-scale project that could encourage more urban revitalization efforts in Kalamazoo. The Eric Breisach family was recognized for restoring a single-family, 1891 family home that had been modified into a tri-plex rental property. Mr. Bresiach said that the neighborhood is already responding to project:

“Since we fixed our house up,” he said, “the owners of the twin house to the left have moved back in and are changing the house back to a single family. The house to the right has been sold and is now an owner-occupied duplex that the new owner has begun to fix up.”

Finally, the state honored a project to rehabilitate Foster Bridge in Ann Arbor Township. The bridge is one of just two metal truss bridges in Michigan built circa 1876 and was saved by a public-private, $500,000 fundraising effort that included the Washtenaw County Road Commission, Barton Village Trustees, and Citizens for Foster Road Bridge Conservancy.

The State Historic Preservation Review Board, in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office and the Michigan Historical Center, screened all projects that were nominated for an award and then made recommendations to the governor. The board plainly views historic preservation in the same light that the governor does. As Brian Conway, the state historic preservation officer, put it, “The connection between historic preservation, land use, community investment, and 'cool cities' is very strong.”

Charlene Crowell is the Institute’s Lansing policy specialist. You can reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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