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Condo Maximum

By Angela Klinske
Photography by Johnny Quirin

As new businesses, upscale dining and world-class entertainment make their marks on Grand Rapids, condominium developments dot downtown like exclamation points — a vibrant trend toward city living that has been ongoing locally for more than a decade.

The demographics of young professionals versus empty nesters and retirees living downtown is now almost 50/50, according to a 2004 Zimmerman/Volk Associates Inc. study commissioned by the city of Grand Rapids. That makes for a diverse mix from all walks of life, including students, entrepreneurs, urban professionals, artists and retired professionals.

The face of downtown has become more than a place for work and play — it’s a place to live. The first condo conversion in town was the Forslund Building on Pearl Street almost 25 years ago, just a few years before Petula Clark sang, “Things’ll be great when you’re downtown/ No finer place for sure, downtown/ Everything’s waiting for you — downtown.”

The first high rise was Eastbank Waterfront Towers, now Plaza Towers, which opened in 1991 and placed residents at the edge of the Grand River, with spectacular views of the river and the city.

Major selling points to downtown dwellers include close access to the expanding medical community, incredible culinary experiences, and the opportunity to live in a “vertical neighborhood,” according to developer Sam Cummings, owner of Second Story Properties.

Bright lights, Grand city! Here’s a peek inside the lives (and condos) of three couples of different decades and one young single man who have chosen downtown Grand Rapids as their home.

View of the city
In 2001, newlyweds Brice Bossardet and Rachael Ruiz built a house in suburban Cascade that was so big there were rooms they never used. Last year they downsized to a 2,000-square-foot space in City View Condominiums at 60 Monroe Center — a space that Ruiz took deliberate steps to design into a home that better fits their lifestyle.

The couple’s condo shows just how hip downtown can be. Once the setting of D.A. Blodgett’s office, this posh piece of prime real estate located in the Select Bank Building (formerly the People’s Building) has earned the reputation as being the gathering place for their friends. The 11-foot ceilings (and windows almost as tall) create the lofty environment that attracts young professionals. Impeccable views of the city’s east, south and west sides, and a bird’s eye view of Blues on the Mall is a tell-all that Grand Rapids isn’t so small after all.

Bossardet and Ruiz enjoy being near the “energy and vibe” unique to downtown.

“ It feels like you’re in the center of the world,” said Ruiz.

Both Bossardet and Ruiz have fast-track careers — Ruiz as anchor and reporter for WOOD-TV8 since 1998, and Bossardet as owner of Virgin Soil Development LLC, a real estate development company. Their home lends itself to their preference for casual living in attractive surroundings. Herman Miller furniture, a gift from Ruiz’s mother who worked at the furniture company, complements the one-of-a-kind accent pieces made by artist friends, including a coffee table constructed of reject steel with accompanying moveable stools (made by friend Dan Carlson).

Aside from the master and guest suites, the floor plan is wide open, with several conversation areas — no stuffy dining rooms or sitting rooms. The open kitchen features granite countertops and an island where meals are occasionally served — the couple typically eats out four times per week. Ruiz’s “high maintenance” plants — Bonsai trees and orchids — take up residency on the window sills.

The former entrance to D.A. Blodgett’s office now serves as the entry to the master suite, which includes a walk-in closet/dressing room complete with stackable washer and dryer.

A Plaza for all seasons
Paul and Susan Bowers’ condo at the Plaza Towers includes a 270-degree view of downtown Grand Rapids and beyond, much of which Paul’s former architectural firm, The WBDC Group, helped design. The firm, now Beta Design Group Inc., wrote the city’s Master Plan in 1970.

The Plaza, built in 1991 and completely renovated in 1996-1997 to replace its buckling facade, is the first building downtown constructed for condominiums. Its sweeping views of the city and beyond create a perfect backdrop for the couple’s candlelit dinners.

“ You get the same views as you get at Cygnus,” Bowers said.

Bowers purchased and gutted their 2,200-square-foot condo in 1997 and redesigned it to take best advantage of the panoramic view of southern Kent County. Bowers said friends warned him and Susan that they would miss out on the seasons by moving from 12 acres in Ada to downtown.

“ We can see the whole area change,” he noted as he looked out from his 30th-floor penthouse. “There’s some of the hottest fishing spots in West Michigan down here (walleye downriver and salmon at the dam). We see the storms coming in. It’s not like the sylvan places we’ve lived before.”

When their family visits — they have eight grown children and 28 grandchildren with another on the way — they take advantage of the museums, restaurants and events going on downtown, many of which are accessible via the heated walkway.

And if there’s more family than sleeping spaces? “We have 200 bedrooms downstairs,” said Bowers of the Marriott Courtyard Hotel located in the same building.

In the Front Row
Across the street from City View, at Front Row Condominiums, reside Bob and Mary Kay Van Driel, age 47 — and about to become empty nesters. They moved downtown from Rockford last year, and so far they see little downside to their new location.

“ I sure don’t miss mowing the grass,” admitted Bob Van Driel, who works in equipment sales for Flexible Automation, which is based near Flint.

Their nightlife has improved, too. “In Rockford, it was an event to figure out what you wanted to do, which usually meant going to a (chain) restaurant,” he said. Now they enjoy just walking around — or opening a window — to take in all the activity, including their first downtown Christmas parade.

Bob actually grew up downtown. Mary Kay grew up on the city’s West Side and remembers taking the bus into the city for shopping at Steketee’s department store and watching bands perform at the Pantlind Hotel. The cityscape has definitely changed since then, but they feel right at home.

Their 1,400-square-foot “flow-through” condo sports views of Monroe Center out the front and Van Andel Arena out the back but also accommodates their need for privacy and space. While four of their children are grown and gone, the couple still has two kids at home — Andrea, 18, and Alex, 15.

Their two-story condo began as a “white box” — basic construction had been completed — when the Van Driels bought it. With help from a professional designer, they chose to maintain the exposed brick walls and ductwork, original wide-oak trim around the windows, and 14-foot ceilings. The modern kitchen fits into an interior corner of the home, with granite countertops, cherry cabinets, stainless steel appliances and an island. They added a brick gas fireplace with built-in bookcases to the living area. Personal touches include a dining table with matching chairs made by Bob, who once owned a furniture-making business, and Mary Kay’s handmade floor cloths.

Upstairs, the condo has two bedrooms, for the couple and for Alex, who has his own view of Van Andel Arena. Andrea has a room on the main floor.

The Van Driels report that they eat out about twice a week, with McFadden’s being among their favorites, while the kids prefer Jimmy John’s, the sub shop right downstairs.

Since they were only living in a few rooms of their Rockford house, Mary Kay Van Driel was ready to return to a “walk-able community.” From her Monroe Center address, she takes a 12-minute walk to her job with Spectrum Health. Andrea hoofs it to classes at Grand Rapids Community College.

State of the Union
One neighbor of Ruiz and Bossardet at City View (though not for long) is Bradley Veneklase, a 27-year-old sales professional. Veneklase is about to move into Union Square, where he is the sales contact for the 180 units due to open this month in the former Union High School/West Middle School building.

Veneklase agrees with Van Driel about yard work. “I work a ton, so it’s nice to come home and immediately enjoy my space,” he said.

Veneklase enjoys being able to walk out his front door for Blues on the Mall, Rosa Parks Circle, bars and restaurants, DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena.

“ Many times on the weekend, my car never leaves the garage,” said Veneklase, who reports he put a whopping 5,000 miles on his car last year. “It’s a walk-and-go lifestyle.

“ I’ve lived downtown (in Heritage Hill) since I was 19. Now … I’m really downtown.” GR

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