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Building Skyscrapers and Saving History

Work is underway to turn the site of the former Gibson Guitar factory complex into a facility housing businesses and an entertainment venue. © 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
PlazaCorp’s work is transforming Kalamazoo, one project at a time

While Kalamazoo’s skyline is being dramatically altered by The Exchange building, currently under construction in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo, it is not the only way local real estate developer PlazaCorp is transforming the city.

With less fanfare — and fewer orange construction cones — PlazaCorp has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on other projects, including reviving historic buildings that are bringing new energy to some of the city’s marginalized neighborhoods.

The crown jewel

With a price tag of $52.7 million, there’s no doubt that The Exchange, a 15-story tower of high-end residential, office and retail space and parking, will be the crown jewel of PlazaCorp’s three decades of investment in the region’s real estate.

This project spent decades on the drawing board with little progress to show other than the occasional painting of new yellow parking stripes until PlazaCorp took the lead on it, redeveloping a parking lot at the corner of Rose Street and West Michigan Avenue across from the Radisson Plaza Hotel. When it opens in August, The Exchange will tower over the stalwart structures most familiar to those who visit, work or live in downtown Kalamazoo and enhance the modernization that’s been underway in the already up-and-coming, commerce-focused downtown.

“It’s tough to overstate what this project means for the market,” says Andrew Haan, president of Downtown Kalamazoo Partnership (formerly Downtown Kalamazoo Inc.). “The Exchange, of course, will have a major impact visually on downtown, and it sends a clear signal that this market is ready for major investments. Also, the employees and residents of the building will be a major boost to businesses in the area.”

According to Haan, the site of The Exchange building had been a parking lot for half a century. Despite numerous development concepts conceived by others, none of them took hold.

“This block burned in the 1940s, and there have been serious attempts and proposals to redevelop it since at least the early 1980s,” says Haan. “This is challenging, complicated work, and it’s not without risk. Stitching together a project of this scale has required vision and creativity from a number of partners, support at the state and local level, and the right market conditions. Those have finally aligned to make this project a reality.”

‘Neat old buildings’

A few blocks north of The Exchange, PlazaCorp is gearing up for another downtown-altering project: turning 303 N. Rose St., a former Masonic temple built in 1913 and most recently known as the Rose Street Market, and an adjacent parking ramp into two new Hilton hotels: a Garden Inn and Home2 Suites. Both The Exchange and the new hotels are expected to draw more people to the city’s center and capture an underserved market, adding 200 mid-level and high-end residential units and another 400 units of hotel rooms, says Andy Wenzel, PlazaCorp executive vice president.

The renovation of the former Masonic Temple will be the latest of several restor-ation projects in Kalamazoo undertaken by PlazaCorp since Canadian-born Jeff Nicholson founded the company here 30 years ago to be closer to the family of his wife, Barbara Baker.

PlazaCorp’s early projects in the area were a mix of retail sites and condominiums, but in 1997, according to a 2002 Encore interview with Nicholson, after seeking a “neat old building” in downtown Kalamazoo for its company offices, PlazaCorp took on its first ambitious renovation of a historical Kalamazoo building: the former Globe Casket Co. site on Water Street. The four-story brick building was gutted and now houses offices and The Beer Exchange restaurant and bar.

In the two decades since, the company has restored and renovated a dozen buildings of varying vintages in downtown Kalamazoo and was recognized for these efforts in 2018 with a Historic Preservation Merit Award from the city of Kalamazoo’s Historic Preservation Commission.

“PlazaCorp gets the idea that people value historic buildings and like being in them,” says Sharon Ferraro, historic preservation coordinator for the city of Kalamazoo. “They know these are good buildings that can be reused, and they recognize the value of these buildings to the community.”

“Everybody wants to enjoy the work they’re doing for a living. I consider myself fortunate to be able to accomplish both in what I do,” says Nicholson, PlazaCorp president. “When renovating or restoring an older abandoned or underutilized property you are not talking about cookie cutter projects, but rather complex puzzles that I enjoy solving while at the same time helping to preserve a small part of Kalamazoo’s legacies. Legacies such as guitar making, the paper industry, railroad hub and the like. I believe the staff here feels the same and are proud when they see the results of their hard work in the bricks and mortar projects that we undertake.”

Energizing neighborhoods

To get a good view of some of the company’s accomplishments, just take the long way from its first rejuvenation project to its most recently completed effort in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood.

Starting on Pitcher Street, pass the striking red brick hues of The Speareflex and The Globe buildings while skirting the restored United Building, which was once an armory and dance hall. Turn left onto West Michigan Avenue and just over the railroad tracks you’ll see the block-long former Grand Trunk Western Railroad freight office, now called The Depot, which hosts a HopCat restaurant on one end and Maru Sushi & Grill on the other.

Take a quick turn south, past an old office building on Pitcher Street and nearby meatpacking plant on Walnut Street — which PlazaCorp also owns but has yet to decide how to develop — and head two miles down Portage Street to a former paper mill site on Alcott Street that is becoming a new health and human services corridor serving county residents.

There, set back from the road is the former Illinois Envelope paper mill, a beautifully restored brick building that is now home to Kalamazoo County’s Health and Community Services Department.

“This is our typical building,” Wenzel says as he walks through the renovated building at 400 Bryant St. “Solid structural base to build from. It’s our kind of project.”

Before they could start to develop it, they had to haul away the “mattresses and trash and junk,” Wenzel says. And inside, people who broke into the vacant building had set small fires. In addition, there were pipes and other paper industry leftovers that were in the way.

Old elevators were torn out and the shafts opened up into a three-story atrium. Natural light comes in via restored skylights. The original wood floors were repaired, and the exposed brick cleaned.

The building’s clients might enjoy the convenience of the new location and the modern office life infused into the 115-year-old building, but there are still not-so-subtle reminders of the building’s past rooted in the décor.

A massive and intricate safe from the Detroit Safe Co., with multiple hidden compartments opened wide, is displayed in the building’s lobby. Just past that, an old industrial scale remains embedded in the floor.

“I’d say 90 percent is original,” Wenzel says. “We brought it back to life with new windows, restoring skylights, bringing back brick and original floor.”

When the Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services department moved into the renovated building last year, it joined the nearby Family Health Center and Kalamazoo County Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services facilities, which are located a few hundred yards away across a vacant field. But the field won’t be vacant for long. A new Michigan Department of Health and Human Services building is planned for the space and will open in 2020.

Alcott Street between Portage and Burdick streets is becoming a corridor of community services, says Tammy Taylor, executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association. “Those are really exciting for us — a one-stop shopping area for people who need services,” says Taylor.

“It will transform more than that area,” she adds. The new influx of workers “will need a place to eat and hang out after work. That’s what’s driving some of the new businesses and those that will be coming on.”

Reviving an icon

Another neighborhood experiencing change in the form of a PlazaCorp project is the Northside of Kalamazoo. While The Exchange and new Hilton hotels will certainly bring more business and people to downtown Kalama-zoo’s core, less than a mile away another ambitious PlazaCorp project is marrying the city’s rock ’n’ roll past to its present.

In 2015, Nicholson and partner Archie Leach bought the former Gibson Guitar factory on Parsons Street. Gibson Guitar was founded in Kalamazoo in 1902 and moved to Nashville in 1984. (It filed for bankruptcy in May 2018, but that’s another story.) After the move, several former Gibson guitar makers who remained in Kalamazoo launched Heritage Guitar Inc. and kept up the craft in Gibson’s old location.

The year after buying the old Gibson complex, Nicholson and Leach also bought Heritage Guitar. And in 2017, they announced a plan for the site that is pure rock ’n’ roll. Literally.

When the renovation is completed in 2020, the smokestack of the former Gibson Guitar factory will be a beacon calling out to entertainment and music seekers. Dubbed The Kalamazoo Enterprise Center, the revamped factory complex will give visitors not only a view of how guitars are still being made there, but a place to stay at a Rolling Stone-branded hotel, listen to concerts at a new music venue, indulge in food and libations at a brewpub, and enjoy tours of a guitar museum.

“Because of the history of the property, I equate it with (the) Louisville Slugger (Museum & Factory in Lousiville, Kentucky),” says Wenzel. “It will be a destination.”

In order to receive a lucrative state tax credit for the project, the developers had to retain much of the original Gibson building and offices, Wenzel says. PlazaCorp has also kept two of the complex’s tenants but relocated them. Forensic Fluids, which used to occupy Gibson’s front office space, is now located in the back of the complex. And most of Heritage Guitar’s manufacturing will be out of the public’s sight as well, except for finishing touches on the guitars, which will be done behind large viewing windows.

That’s on the main floor. Above will be two floors of a Rolling Stone-themed boutique hotel. A new restaurant on the property will provide the room service. The brewery as yet is unnamed, and the exact setup of the music venue is also still to be determined, though early estimates have it at a 700-seat capacity — bigger than nearby Bell’s Brewery but smaller than the State Theatre.

Work was already underway on the project this past summer, even with much of the details yet to be finalized. During a tour of the building, one had to squint past fire-burnt cement and peeling layers of old paint and wallpaper to envision the end result. Where a courtyard and dining area will be, a greasy forklift was tucked near concrete factory walls. A new humidity control system was being installed as well as a new ventilation system four times bigger than what the structure currently needs, in order to accommodate a popular attraction.

Most of the iconic brick Gibson smokestack has been carefully taken down and organized on a pallet for storage and repairs “and will be restored as original,” Wenzel says.

And in the original offices of Gibson Guitar, there will be a museum that pays homage to both the city and the instrument that defined multiple music genres.

“I know BB King was here, Johnny Cash was here,” Wenzel says during a tour of the remarkably preserved Gibson office space. One room remains paneled in a variety of samples of wood that artists would select from for their guitars. “Interestingly enough, it survived all these years,” he notes.

If work progresses as planned, a 2020 completion is “very reachable,” Wenzel says.

Significant impact

But there is some concern that when The Kalamazoo Enterprise Center is finished, it may blur the de facto line between the city’s predominantly African-American Northside neighborhood and the ever-expanding downtown, encouraging development that could price-out those who have lived there for generations.

Building one of the city’s tallest buildings out of a parking lot in the central business district is one thing. Rescuing crumbling history in old neighborhoods in need of investment without bringing on the kind of gentrification that prices out residents is another.

And while PlazaCorp’s work on the Illinois Envelope building is a boost for the Edison neighborhood, Northside leaders are a bit more apprehensive about development efforts in their neighborhood. As more properties in the area are purchased by developers, leaders wonder whether it will leave residents without the ability to influence decisions made within their neighborhood.

“Those that own land control what happens,” says Mattie Jordan-Woods, execu-tive director of the Northside Association for Community Development. “They control who gets jobs, and ultimately they control who stays.”

Rose Street runs almost straight through the center of the Northside and is becoming an unofficial dividing line between the two halves of the neighborhood.

To the east, a former blue-collar stomping ground is poised to become a hipster haven likely to feature pricey apartment units. The area already has a craft brewery and artisan distillery and will be anchored by The Kalamazoo Enterprise Center.

To the west, where the Northside neighborhood’s only full grocery store returned in 2010 after nose-to-the-grindstone efforts by Jordan-Woods, the NACD is looking to lure more affordable housing and locally owned businesses.

“We’re focused on securing land that will allow residents to own businesses and live and work in the neighborhood,” she says.

Wenzel says that PlazaCorp has similar aims, noting that its project will ultimately bring jobs and opportunity to the neighborhood. “We encourage our tenants to hire neighborhood residents when they’re qualified. We have looked at and are working with other local agencies on workforce development — agencies like Urban Alliance and Kalamazoo Valley Community College, that can provide the training needed to work in our tenants’ industries. Through this we hope that we’ve met some of the concerns of the neighborhood.”

For good or bad, the NACD and PlazaCorp are competing as developers, entrenched in different ways in Kalamazoo’s historic Northside. Whatever it may bring, however, when The Kalamazoo Enterprise Center is complete, the neighborhood, like other areas of the city where PlazaCorp’s footprints are, will be changed.

Encore Magazine

Encore Magazine is Southwest Michigan’s Magazine, bringing readers intriguing images and stories of the good things, good works and great people of our corner of the mitten. Published 12 times a year, Encore in its fifth decade of serving Southwest Michigan, carrying on a historic tradition of being the premier lifestyle publication of the greater Kalamazoo area.

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