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Future of city’s skyline shaped by past and present


Pat Evans Grand Rapids Business Journal
Published 4 / 21 / 16

With several new buildings going up in the downtown and older structures being brought back to life, the developers and architects working on the projects are cognizant that what they are doing will change the skyline of Grand Rapids for years to come.

The mixture of new modern buildings and existing historic buildings is important to how a community views its downtown, said John Wheeler, director of development for Orion Construction and president of Orion Real Estate Solutions, which is developing several new buildings downtown including the 11-story Arena Place, eight-story Venue Tower and the proposed Warner Tower.

“Most of our buildings sit right next to or across the street from buildings built over 100 years ago, so we blend our concepts with the modern touch,” Wheeler said.

“Today, architecture is just as important as in any era of our country. It is critical when we design/assist our architects that they understand the longevity of what they are doing to our community.”

Wheeler said to ensure the architect understands the gravity of adding a major building to downtown, he chooses local talent, as they are “as skilled as anywhere in the country.”

For Orion’s recent projects, it has paired with Concept Design Group, which also has paired with Franklin Partners on the rehabilitation of buildings such as the upcoming Keeler Building project, and on the proposed apartment project at 601 Bond Ave. NW.

Orion also works with Integrated Architecture and Progressive AE, and with local architects James Brodi and Isaac Norris.

Concept Design Vice President Tom Tooley said his favorite part of creating a building design is figuring out how to mold the building into the given site, based on the constraints of the site and the desires of the developer.

For Arena Place, Tooley said the project started as a five-story building and eventually grew to 11 floors, while the Venue Tower project went in the opposite direction.

“Architecture becomes a fabric for us. When you look at a town that’s been here for so long and look at the beautiful examples of historic buildings, how a new building meshes with that is important,” Tooley said.

“It’s not our responsibility to create a building that replicates history; it’s supposed to be about its time. Each building is a reflection of its time.”

He said downtown’s buildings can be loosely categorized by the eras in which they were designed and the technology available at that time. In addition to the structures built more than 100 years ago, Tooley said there also are examples of modernist buildings of the 1960s, the small windows of the 1970s, and full glass buildings from the 1980s and 1990s.

Along with the Keeler Building, other buildings from past eras recently have been renovated and rehabilitated, including the ongoing renovation of The Rowe on the corner of Michigan Street and Monroe Avenue NW by CWD Real Estate Investment.

CWD will take similar steps at the 50 Monroe Building as it did at the Trust and Ledyard buildings to bring historic features inside and out back to life, said Nick Koster, CWD vice president of operations.

These restorations are important to preserve historic buildings and share them with the community for years to come, he said, and an easier investment for a long-term property owner such as CWD.

“We also have to be practical — expenditures have to make sense,” Koster said. “And, of course, we have to serve our clients, so that usually means new elevators, new HVAC, new bathrooms and common areas, etc. These are the things that impact our customer’s daily experience.”

Concept Design prefers to stay away from trends and strives for timeless design, Tooley said, adding he avoids projects that might stray into the realm of “starchitect” — more of an artistic expression that creates discussion but doesn’t necessarily fit well into the scheme of a downtown skyline.

“We don’t have a set style; everything has its own life,” Tooley said. “Obviously, Warner will tell us their building better not look like Arena Place, but we learn things from building to building. Every building is a response to its location.”

Along with fitting into its site, a new project has to be functional — not just look cool, Wheeler said. As long-term owners of their developments, Wheeler said it’s important to Orion that its buildings provide a competitive functionality for years to come.

“We are not just looking for cool shades and shadows and colors; we look for long-term asset design. The principle is about the people using, living, having fun in our buildings. It’s all about human comfort at an affordable price to the user,” Wheeler said.

“Our architectural partners are all fine examples of professionals who align with our principles for the best architecture that the community will enjoy, embrace and be proud of for the long haul of the city, rebirthing itself from a renovated downtown to a mix of rehab and new facilities, together creating a time period where, 50 years from now, they will look back and say, ‘That was a great time in the city’s history.’”