There were two times John Wheeler thought the Warner Building was dead in the water.
Those brief periods were both navigated successfully, and Wheeler and a variety of partners broke ground last week on the $72-million, two-tower development at the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. Orion Construction is in the midst of building the 15-story office tower to be home to law firm Warner Norcross and Judd, Midland-based Chemical Bank’s West Michigan office and a 12-story Hyatt Place hotel on the city block bordered by Ottawa and Ionia avenues and Lyon and Pearl streets. The development also includes a seven-level parking garage with more than 400 spaces, retail and restaurant space.
“At one time, there was a list of 108 challenges,” said Wheeler, president of Orion Real Estate Solutions and the director of business development at Orion Construction.
“That was two years and six months ago, and I said we’ll have to get over all 108 of these to make this thing fly. It was a lot. The most I’ve ever had to deal with in my career.”
Near Christmas 2016, Wheeler already had decided to forgo the original plan of apartments and move to a hotel aspect. It was while waiting to land a hotel franchise Wheeler felt the project might not move forward.
The development originally surfaced in fall 2016 as a $63.5-million project with the office tower and a residential tower with 123 market-rate units.
“If I couldn’t get the hotel franchise, I didn’t want to get another group of apartments and play that volatile game,” he said. “I put it on ice and said, ‘If it’s meant to be, I can’t do any more to prove anything to this franchise.”
The project also stalled through the Brownfield process with the city of Grand Rapids and Michigan Economic Development Corp., until the organizations “broke rank” and approved a 22-year repayment plan.
Throughout the three years of planning, Concept Design Vice President Tom Tooley said the design changed at least a half dozen times, as the architects looked at a single tower and multiple two-tower designs.
“This project involves revitalizing a surface parking lot, which is not the most effective use of space in the city’s core,” Tooley said. “Building a mixed-use structure benefits Grand Rapids in a multitude of ways, such as providing a new Class A office building, keeping a major tenant in the core, establishing a new hotel brand for our downtown, adding a more efficient parking structure and establishing new retail and restaurant space.
“We are proud of this project, as it is an exciting addition to our downtown skyline and creates a vibrant pedestrian experience for the entire downtown.”
The 291,549-square-foot office tower will be anchored by Warner Norcross, which identified the 125-space Ellis Parking surface lot three years ago as the site of its future office. The office tower will be erected first, with the hotel footprint serving as the staging area until the steel is constructed. A 22-story tower crane will operate at the site.
Ellis Parking Owner Mike Ellis, whose father purchased the site in 1968, leases the property to the development group.
The family attempted to build an office building on the site in 2001, but it took another 14 years for Warner to move forward with the new plans, Ellis said at the groundbreaking. Ellis said his father believed the downtown would rebound from its down periods in the 1970s and 1980s and the parking lot could be a great development site.
“My dad really believed this would be a great city,” he said. “He was right.”
Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. President and CEO Kris Larson said the dense multiuse development would be a building block of the downtown Grand Rapids of the future.
“One of the things we can do to build a sustainable land use pattern is really maximize the utility of close-to-the-core sites, like this one, to serve the needs for our commerce, job creation and residential uses like a hotel,” said Larson, whose DGRI office is next to the site. “(We) can build upon the context and co-tenancy we experience in an urban environment, and that’s where we can build an active street life.”
The development is expected to generate an extra $150,000 in income tax from new jobs housed at the office building that weren’t downtown prior to its completion in 2019.
Warner Norcross has had offices bordering Ottawa Avenue since it was founded nearly 90 years ago. In that time, it’s grown from less than 10 attorneys to more than 200.
“In everything we do, our goal is to provide exceptional client service,” Warner Norcross Managing Partner Doug Dozeman said. “Working with the development team gives us the unique opportunity to design more efficient space that fits the way the practice of law is evolving to better serve our clients.”
Chemical Bank will operate its West Michigan office out of the Warner Building.
“Chemical Bank is excited to be at the point that we need to consider a larger footprint in downtown Grand Rapids,” Chemical Regional President Joel Rahn said. “The additional space will allow us to bring more of our regional management team together in one location in the heart of the city’s Central Business District.”
The 114,312-square-foot Hyatt Place will include 160 rooms, a full service bar, lounge, indoor pool, fitness room and meeting spaces.
The design is not the standard Hyatt Place prototype, and Tooley and the Concept Design team traveled to the Chicago Loop to view another non-standard Hyatt Place building.
The LLC ownership mix of the development also includes SIBSCO, the investment company of Peter Secchia.
The groundbreaking for the Warner Building project is one of the keystone moments in Wheeler’s long development career, as it’s Orion’s largest development and at the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. He believes it will be a success, whereas Arena Place was a riskier endeavor.
“When I started Arena Place, that was risky for that side of town,” Wheeler said. “This, this is a hell of a site. The two projects are equal in their value to me personally, but this will be a great one.”