Gilbert expands west, buys Book Tower

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — In his first deal on Washington Boulevard, billionaire Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services bought an entire city block that includes the 38-story Book Tower and 13-story Book Building along with a smaller building — a move expected to restore the street to its once-storied grandeur.

Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services just bought one of the biggest empty buildings downtown: the 38-story Book Tower and the 13-story Book Building that take up an entire city block on Washington Boulvard.

Bedrock officials said the company plans “a game-changing, mixed-use development” of housing, retail and office. No details were given on what kind of stores or other businesses may end up in the historic Book structures, which are connected and comprise nearly a half-million square feet. Nor was a timeline given. Several developers including a former owner of the Book buildings said they believe the sale

price was around $30 million.

The Book structures have been empty since 2009. The decline of the massive buildings began in the late 1960s, mirroring the city’s sagging fortunes. The smaller building purchased by Bedrock was last used as a soup kitchen.

“This project is going to be one of the most exciting redevelopments in our entire Detroit real estate portfolio,” said Gilbert, founding partner of Bedrock Real Estate Services, in a written statement Friday. “We will bring this beautiful, world-class iconic landmark back to life in a manner that will make all Detroiters and visitors proud. We can’t wait to get started.”

The buildings are part of the Washington Boulevard Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Other historical buildings in the district between State and Clifford streets include the Industrial-Steven building, which is now home to low-income rental apartments. Another is the upscale Westin Book Cadillac Hotel and Residences, which was closed for almost 25 years before it reopened in 2008 after a $200 million renovation.

Washington Boulevard is one of the city’s main boulevards and part of Augustus Woodward’s 1807 design for the city, according to the Detroit Historical Society’s website. The street was broadened in the early part of the 20th century and mimicked New York’s Fifth Avenue and the grand European boulevards of the time.

In the late 1970s, Washington Boulevard was redesigned with an urban pedestrian mall that included new sculptures and an amphitheater. It has since been restored to its original plan.

The Book structures have changed ownership several times over the past two decades. In 1989, local developer David Lambrecht bought the building after it had fallen into foreclosure. He died the next year and his wife, Susan, took over and poured millions into the buildings and managed to achieve 60 percent occupancy.

“But this was the ’80s and ’90s; being downtown was tough. There was nobody that was going to finance your project,” Susan Lambrecht said. It was sold in 2006 to a local developer who quickly lost the building to a bank creditor, she said. An Italian firm with a Vancouver connection then bought the structures and sold the buildings to Gilbert.

Renovation of the structures likely will cost about $100 million, Lambrecht estimated. She believes the smaller building will be converted into parking — which will be critical to the buildings’ tenants. Already, downtown parking is at a premium.

“Dan (Gilbert) has been absolutely masterful in what he is doing downtown. I think it can be a great success,” Lambrecht said.

Named for real estate entrepreneurs and developers J. Burgess, Frank and Herbert Book, the Book Tower dates to 1926. Designed by Louis Kamper, it is in the Italian Renaissance style, with Corinthian columns, carved figures and a copper roof visible for miles. It’s older sister, the Book Building, was built in 1917. Kamper also designed the building known today as the Westin Book Cadillac.

Washington Boulevard has seen investments beyond Gilbert. In addition to the Westin Book-Cadillac, the David Whitney building at Grand Circus and Washington has been restored into the Aloft boutique hotel and rental apartments. Construction on Statler City, a new mixed-use upscale apartment, is scheduled to begin second quarter 2016 and finish fourth quarter 2017. That project will take up a triangular patch between Washington Boulevard and Bagley Avenue that was once the site of the Statler Hotel, demolished in 2005.

Farmington Hills-based Village Green Cos. is behind the Statler City Apartment; it also controls Detroit City Apartments on Washington, one block from the Book Tower & Building.

“Washington Boulevard was the next logical choice for development to continue,” Village Green CEO Jonathan Holtzman said Friday. “Every day it seems the momentum continues for cities and Detroit is no exception. We are very proud that we are playing a role in restoring Washington Boulevard.”

Since its founding in 2011, Bedrock and its affiliates have invested more than $1.8 billion in acquiring, renovating and developing more than 80 properties downtown totaling more than 13 million square feet. The firm possesses prized skyscrapers, a major chunk of Woodward Avenue, the Greektown Casino & Hotel; and 17,000 parking spaces.

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN

What Bedrock bought

Book Tower — 1265 Washington Blvd., 38 floors, 241,000 square feet

Book Building — 1249 Washington Blvd., 13 floors, 246,000 square feet

Community Center — 1201 Washington Blvd., two floors, 30,000 square feet

Total: 517,000 square feet