‘An elevated take on Downriver living’
By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
SOUTHGATE – High expectations characterized the Bank Tower Apartments kickoff June 21, with the focus on the views from the future apartments and the advantages of the surrounding park and pedestrian crosswalk.
The former bank building, built in 1972 for Security Bank and Trust, and last known as the PNC Bank Building, has been vacant for more than seven years.
The renovation, which will include community gathering spaces on the main level and apartments on all floors, will be surrounded by a park and a pedestrian walkway over Trenton Road to the nearby Kiwanis train park, which will be funded through Wayne County American Rescue Plan Act money.
Developer and owner Alex Begin said the Begin family remains in southeast Michigan and committed to the region.
He said the tower was once a showcase for banks and a source of pride for the community.
Begin said Security Bank and Trust was purchased by First of America Bank, which then became National City Bank, then ultimately became PNC Bank, which didn’t need all the space that the tower provided.
He said the property was sold to a succession of investors, and with the societal change toward remote work, office buildings have become risky investments, and other primary uses need to be developed for buildings like the tower.
Begin said in 2016, his company transformed its 1970-built Madison Office Center, located at I-75 and 14 Mile Road in Madison Heights, and successfully converted it into Tremont Apartments.
“Within a few months of its reopening, it was fully occupied, with spacious, beautiful units that I think are the nicest in that city,” he said.
Begin said that in 2021 when he was driving through Southgate, he saw that the tower was vacant and it occurred to him that he could convert another 1970s office building into apartments.
“In the case of the Southgate tower, I’ve been overwhelmed by the spirit of cooperation, logical planning and goodwill on the part of every key party,” he said.
Begin said a lot of thought has gone into how to make the project affordable to get started and to be profitable over the long-term.
He praised the cooperation of Wayne County and the city of Southgate.
“I’ve never encountered such a logical, pro-business duo in government as these two entities have been,” he said. “They have worked creatively and thoughtfully to assemble a set of incentives that have made the redevelopment of this building possible and viable.”
Begin said Southgate, working with the Downriver Community Conference, was able to put together a medium-term loan and a longer-term Brownfield Tax Increment Financing plan toward the significant cost of asbestos abatement and interior demolition, which he said is an essential task for a building of its vintage.
In addition, he said Wayne County and Southgate are collaborating with the architects to create a new park on the property, which will be an attractive complement to nearby Kiwanis Park, with Wayne County ARPA funds covering the construction of the new park and the pedestrian bridge over Trenton Road, which will connect the two parks and the tower.
Begin said the new park will include a number of recreational amenities, including pickleball courts, exercise stations and putting greens, which will be open to the public, while the tower management company will pay for the maintenance of the park.
He said the tower will offer about 215 apartments, ranging from studios to larger units, including some two-story units with patios.
The centralized air conditioning units on the 14th floor will no longer be needed, so the space will be converted into two-story glass-walled penthouse apartments which will have what he characterized as an amazing view.
Begin said the armored truck well for loading cash will be converted into a parking garage, while the safety deposit box vault in the lower level will be restored and turned into a social area.
He said the drive-through teller area will be converted into electrical vehicle charging stations, and they will restore one of the pneumatic tube stations to allow tenants to use it as a means to submit their rent.
Begin said the main lobby and vault, which will be adorned with historical photos of the building, will be available for rent for special occasions, allowing more people to enjoy the space.
He said Beztak Properties will manage the complex.
Begin said the work on the tower was scheduled to begin June 26, with an early to mid-2025 targeted completion date.
Architect Jason Grossi said it isn’t necessarily the age of the building, but its style, architectural details and features that make a transformation meaningful.
“I can assure you, speaking for the design team, that with all our combined years of experience, the stars have aligned with this project,” he said. “We have never witnessed the outpouring of immediate cooperation, excitement and joy that we have working on this project.”
Grossi said the most important material to be preserved in a building renovation is memory.
“We must also maintain and reveal the elements of the building that tell us what it originally is, maintaining the memory of the building, making the difference between place and space,” he said. “After construction is completed, our hope is that you are not only impressed by the grandiose lobby, showcasing all the new amenities of the building, but are keenly aware that you are still in the lobby of Security Bank and Trust.”
Grossi said the travertine marble that was on the columns has been removed and saved for other architectural detailing.
He said that the site’s excess parking areas will be turned into green space, and the building’s main entrance will now be on the east side of the tower, with the extra asphalt ground up, milled and used to raise the entrance on the east side of the building so it will be flush with the main floor.
“No longer will this be a building that has a kind of fortress-like character, with stairs all around it,” Grossi said. “It will be completely barrier-free.”
He said the ground floor, with its tall ceilings, affords the opportunity of two-story apartments that will have ground-floor access from the lobby and direct access to the outdoors.
Grossi said the views from the upper floors will be spectacular for the tenants, and said the pedestrian bridge is an ideal way to link the new park with the existing Kiwanis Park.
“The bridge is designed to be a symbolic illuminated entrance to Southgate from the vehicular experience and the modern extension of the transformation of tower from the pedestrian experience,” Grossi said. “The park becomes a win-win for everyone, providing added amenities for Kiwanis Park and the residents of Bank Tower Apartments that can be used for outdoor fitness and events and bring spectacular views to the apartments.”
He said the tower has always been a vertical marker for the community, as access to financial stability and commerce.
“Now it will become a beacon to mark a place for the community,” Grossi said. “A place for events, close to Kiwanis Park, open green space and unique living.”
Mayor Joseph Kuspa said he is pleased to see the rebirth of the 50-year-old building, which he said remains the tallest building between Detroit and Toledo.
“Thank you, Alex and your development team, for seeing the value in this building, respecting its legacy and creating a modern residential complex that represents the single largest redevelopment project in the history of our city,” he said. “These residential units are going to be spectacular and have the potential to become transformational for our community.”
Kuspa said the new park surrounding the tower is the first new city park in more than 30 years, and he thanked Wayne County Executive Warren Evans for his support of the project.
Evans said he knows how painful it can be for communities to have an albatross so tall standing as the beacon to the city when it is vacant.
“What the developer and architect have done here is bringing life to something that should be full of life, and it is going to be great for the community,” he said. “We are really happy to support it.”