616 Development heads down the aisle


616 Development is expanding its restoration efforts into Heritage Hill with renovation of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church into apartments. Courtesy 616 Development

The distinctive neo-Gothic structure that once served as a place of worship has all the possibilities to become one of the most unique places to call home in one of the city’s most noted neighborhoods, Heritage Hill.

616 Development revealed last week that it will convert the former Bethlehem Lutheran Church at 253 Prospect Ave. NE into 616 Lofts at Prospect, a 22-unit market-rate apartment complex that will offer a mix of studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms that will range in price from $800 to $1,450 a month.

The project is a bit different than the previous ones 616 has developed in the past. Those were largely commercial structures in the downtown business district and some also contain retail and office spaces. In fact, the firm is finishing up such a project with its renovation of the Kendall Building at 16 Monroe Center into a dozen apartments, office space for the company on the second floor and a ground-floor retail storefront.

This time, though, the plan is strictly residential in a residential sector not far from the Medical Mile on Michigan Street NE and the downtown district 616 is so familiar with.  But despite the change from the usual plan, 616 Development founder Derek Coppess said he saw the same things in the church that he has seen in the other buildings his firm has restored and revived.

“I think we saw similar things that we’ve seen in a lot of the buildings we’re doing right now and have done in the past, which is just a beautifully over-built historic structure that is functionally obsolete. It’s doing nothing, in this case, for the neighborhood other than becoming a nuisance,” he said.

“So like every other project you look at and you wonder what you can do with it and this one was really no different. And I think as our city grows it will be the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods will become more and more critical and will become opportunities for developers like us.”

Coppess pointed out Heritage Hill offers those opportunities due to its proximity to the Michigan Avenue corridor, which has drawn a $1 billion in investment over the past decade or so and is still drawing interest.

At the same time, though, he noted the neighborhood also offers developers like him a sense of security that is vital for their personal investments. In this case, that investment is $3 million.

“That historically protected area is never going to change so we’re real protected in there. We’re in a neighborhood full of neighbors who care about their properties, their values, and their community. So we really do match up well with their philosophy of community creation and being good neighbors,” said Coppess.

“So it’s not all that different to us than being on Main at Main.”

In addition, the church, which has been vacant since 2007 after the congregation moved to Commerce Avenue SW, has rare structural features few residences can offer but also make a conversion tougher.

The building has a 45-foot sanctuary, a basement that once served as a hall for the parish, and a wing that was added in the 1950s that the ministry used for educational purposes. There is a bell tower, a stairwell that winds upward to what was the choir’s loft, and a large 18-foot-by-7-foot stained glass window on the third level.

In all, the building offer four stories and about 24,000 square feet of developable space.

Greg Metz of Lott3 Metz Architecture is designing the conversion and will be overseeing the renovation work, as Coppess said this project won’t use the usual construction-manager approach. Instead, 616 will use local subcontractors that specialize in certain areas to turn the church into 616 Lofts on Prospect. Work has already begun.

“We like to announce and dig, announce and dig,” said Coppess with a laugh. “We do hope to have our full permit shortly. But we do have our demo permit right now and we’re getting our demo done. We’re hoping to end in March of 2014.”

Monica Clark, director of community development for 616, said the pre-leasing stage will get underway in December. “We usually like to wait about three months until the apartments are a little bit further along so everyone can kind of get an idea of what they’re moving into,” she said.

Those interested in learning more can get that information from the monthly newsletter 616 distributes. It focuses on the 616 Lofts communities in the area. “So once we’re ready to pre-lease this one we’ll send out a specific newsletter for that wait list, announcing what’s there, layouts, pricing and all of that,” said Clark.

616development.com/prospect and 616lofts.com/prospect are the websites the firm will have for the project.

Another group, Renatus LLC, had targeted the church for a condominium development in early 2008, after buying it in March 2007. But the group wasn’t able to follow through with the project after the nation’s housing and financial markets fell apart a few months after the development was announced.

What Renatus did accomplish, though, during the short time it had the structure was to get through the necessary development hurdles from the city’s planning and historic preservation commissions to pave the path for the building’s adaptive reuse.

“We looked at it with them and because we don’t do for-sale condos we came up with a plan for increasing the density to 22 units and being market-rate apartments. We actually, in good faith to that group, went through the different steps and got variances from the city so we are able to use those variances,” said Coppess.

The task to turn the church into an inviting residential building would have been nearly an impossible mission without advice that came from the Historic Preservation Commission. The panel explained how the building’s stained-glass windows could be handled to meet a basic factor that allows residents to actually live in a former church, namely to see the outside from the inside of their apartments.

“Why historically-protected churches are so difficult to convert into anything but a church is because you can’t get rid of the stained glass. Though we appreciate the history of the stained glass and its beauty, it’s not good when a tenant can’t get fresh air or look out their window. People like to be able to see out their units,” said Coppess.

“So the forward thinkers at HPC collaborated with us on a plan that allowed us to maintain some of the stained glass so you can see the history of the church. But they also allowed for certain sections to be removed so we could get good light in for the tenants. It’s a great example of how we work with the city. We really value our relationship with the city and they really made this one possible for us.”

The church grounds, which measures about sixth-tenths of an acre, was awarded brownfield status when Renatus owned the site and Coppess said the property qualified for a tax credit then under the old Michigan Business Tax.

“We’ve utilized that and we’ve also got an (obsolete property tax exemption), a 10-year tax abatement. So we really got good state and local support. We feel it’s really important for the city and for what we do,” he said.

“We’re looking at some really large projects that we’ll be announcing this fall and these are going to have a huge impact for the city of Grand Rapids. But these smaller infill projects are so important for our city to have developed, and it’s always going to be part of our DNA, I think, at 616 to take on what we call singles and doubles; good nice little base hits.

“We’ll always take the singles, doubles and triples. We don’t care about home runs or strikeouts.”

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