Monroe Center is nearly rebuilt


Monroe Center Street NW runs through the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. Photo by Chris Pastotnik

Not that long ago, downtown’s main street was made up of vacant buildings and empty storefronts.

That landscape began to change when Rockford Construction Co. transformed the former Peck Drugstore building at Monroe Center and Division Avenue about 15 years ago into what is now MoDiv.

With 616 Development close to finishing its restoration of the Kendall Building at 16 Monroe Center, only one structure now is left to convert on the street. And, as one might guess, Rockford Construction will play a major role in that final transformation.

The construction and development firm joined RDV Corp. to form 55 Ionia Partners LLC for the purpose of turning the vacant Morton House, the last empty and unused structure on Monroe Center, into an apartment complex with 100 market-rate units and ground floor retail.

The partners bought the 170,000-square-foot building in June 2011 for an undisclosed amount.

“It’s really the last piece of Monroe Center,” said Kurt Hassberger, president of Rockford Development. “We are very committed to making it market-rate apartments.”

George Morton built the Morton Hotel in 1872, after the National Hotel, which sat on the same site, burned to the ground. Then J. Boyd Pantlind hired the Owen Ames Kimball construction firm to build the current 13-story structure in 1922 and kept the Morton Hotel name.

In 1915, Pantlind also built the Pantlind Hotel on Monroe Avenue, which became the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in 1981.

In the 1970s, the Morton Hotel was renovated into the Morton House Apartments with 220 affordable units, but the building closed in 2011.

Now, 55 Ionia Partners LLC plans to invest $21 million into restoring the structure and improving its property.

“Our plan includes a complete façade renovation of the structure,” said Mike Mraz, vice president of development for Rockford Construction, which will perform the restoration according to federal historic standards.

“We’ll have a unit mix of studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments and ground-floor retail space. Our count is at least 100 market-rate apartments,” added Mraz.

Hassberger said part of the project involves making the property’s streetscape that runs along Ionia Avenue more consistent with what exists on Monroe Center. That work may include a snowmelt system on Ionia Avenue once the company removes the underground areaway there and installs a new sidewalk.

The Downtown Development Authority agreed to help the partners finance the project. The board awarded them a $50,000 building reuse grant for the historic restoration of the structure’s façade, a $35,000 grant to fill the areaway, and a $35,000 grant for the Ionia Avenue streetscape work and new sidewalk.

The DDA also agreed to reimburse the partners 75 percent of the tax revenue the finished project will generate for 10 years, a total of $1.5 million. Those funds will help cover the costs of providing barrier-free access throughout the building and the improvements to the property’s public right-of-way.

In addition, the Grand Rapids Economic Development Corp. will make up to $400,000 in its revolving loan fund from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency available to the partners for the project’s clean-up.

Hassberger said work will begin when they hear from the U.S. Department of Interior regarding their application for federal incentives.

“This is a really important investment for downtown,” said Mayor George Heartwell, also a DDA board member. “Rockford is taking on some of the really challenging projects downtown.”

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