Federal Building celebrates redevelopment award


The Federal Building in downtown Grand Rapids is home to Kendall College of Art and Design.

Walking through the Federal Building at 17 Pearl St. NW in downtown Grand Rapids, one might never be able to tell it was once considered a crumbling, abandoned eyesore.

The Grand Rapids landmark’s ugly-duckling transformation is what earned project leaders Ferris State University and Kendall College of Art and Design the win for this year’s University of Michigan-Urban Land Institute Real Estate Forum in the category of Development/Redevelopment of the Year.

The win is a celebration of the creativity and collaboration that resurrected a “dismal” building and made it “magnificent,” said David Eisler, president of Ferris State University.

“When you restore something that’s a living, breathing piece of history, it’s a wonderful feeling,” Eisler said. “Other buildings were torn down. This building was 100 years old last year. This was the last great public building in Grand Rapids, and we were able to save it.”

When first approaching the project, the odds against winning an award like this seemed insurmountable, Eisler said.

From a construction standpoint, practically everything would have to be removed from the structure. Part of the copper roof had been ripped away, and severe water damage had eaten through many internal walls. The third and fourth floors, Eisler said, looked as if they probably hadn’t been used since the 1970s.

He said the renovation work seemed almost reasonable, however, when compared to its cost: The initial projections pegged the work at a staggering $31 million.

Eisler said he really only had two requirements: “To repair the entire building and come away without placing Kendall in a difficult financial situation.”

In the middle of the recession, Eisler and his team whittled down the price through innovative public-private partnerships with city, county, state and federal resources.

“In the space of two months, from August to November in 2009, was when all this came together, and it was a lot of work for us,” Eisler said. “We went from a point where we couldn’t afford the building to a place where we were all in it together. It was really incredible.”

With the aid of The Christman Co., as well as legal and local government support, the project received three Michigan tax credits. The city of Grand Rapids and the Downtown Development Authority waived all taxes on the project. The city also provided American Recovery and Reinvestment Act bonds, and donor support and various fundraisers helped in the latter stages of the project.

The project’s final cost to the university, in comparison to the initial estimate, is now unbelievably low.

“The university will lease the building from Christman for the first seven years, and at that point will assume responsibility for the remaining bonding liability, estimated to be less than $5 million,” Eisler wrote in his nomination form. “This will net an annual cost for this extensive renovation of around $300,000.”

Kendall took possession of the building in March of this year. The college has grown from approximately 500 students to more than 1,400 since 2001, Eisler said, further contributing to the city’s economic vitality.

The building also recently received LEED Gold certification, Eisler said, which he called “an especially notable achievement in a renovation.”

Looking back, Eisler said that to the people who worked on the Federal Building, it became more than just another renovation: It was emotionally and even personally engaging. After all, he said, the most sustainable building is the building that isn’t torn down.

“Today, we can see the magnificence of this fully renovated 94,000-square-foot building,” he wrote. “When one sits in the marvelously restored former courtrooms, it is easy to forget the challenges of updating a structure originally lit by gas lamps.”

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