Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Most everyone who has driven or walked by a brick house on Riverside Drive in Battle Creek recognizes that it has seen better days.
An off-white material covers openings that used to encase glass windows and the sienna-colored brick that was used to build the two-story Greek Revival home looks weathered. But, a local businessman looked a little deeper and saw what the structure could look like with an influx of cash and some physical labor.
That vision will be a reality in the next few years and the property’s new owner is ready to make it happen.
Hans Stark, owner of Michigan Tile and Carpet and Executive Growth Properties, LLC, purchased the property at 373 Riverside Drive earlier this year from the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority
for $5,000. The house, believed to be the oldest residence in Battle Creek, was built by William B. Shepard, the city’s first schoolteacher.
“I love the old homes,” Stark says. “All I’m going to do is fix it up. I understand that a lot of people are wanting to know how much I’m spending and how much I’m going to make. That’s the million-dollar question that everybody’s asked me.”
He declined to provide a ballpark estimate, but regardless, Starks says his latest project is more about saving a piece of the city’s history and less about any profit he may make from a sale.
A view of the front of the house at 373 Riverside Drive.
To put it in a proper historical context, Stark says, “The Civil War had just ended when that house was built.”
The bricks used to build the house contain clay from the Kalamazoo River and the timbers were ax-cut in Bellevue and transported to Battle Creek. Stark says the Riverside Drive property was the first brick house built in that area of town, now known as the Old Lakeview Neighborhood, and he thinks it was a show house for the brickmaker to display his handiwork in anticipation of promoting other sales.
In a case of history repeating itself in a good way, when the work is done the leadership of the Land Bank will be able to add the 373 Riverside home to its growing collection of rehab success stories in much the same way that the brickmaker did.
Krista Trout-Edwards, Executive Director of the County’s Land Bank, says her organization took ownership of the property after it went through the foreclosure process in April 2017. The Calhoun County Treasurer was the last owner of record.
Based on the extensive research he’s done, Stark says he thinks the house has been vacant for more than 20 years. “The inside is trashed,” he says. “There’s nothing left in there. The Battle Creek Historical Society put a new roof on 21 years ago. It’s not failing yet, but it’s not far from it.”
The most immediate work will include securing the building with a new roof, soffits, and windows.
“It’s important to keep the historical facade, but it’s not something that we can do overnight,” Stark says.
Rather than restoring it for residential use, Stark’s plans call for the structure to be used for commercial purposes with space for seating and a kitchen area on the first floor and loft space on the second floor. He says that the renovation costs are too steep to turn it back into a residential property.
Trout-Edwards says when the Land Bank sells a residential property, they require the prospective buyers to put together a rehab plan before getting too far in so they know what they’re getting into. She says the Riverside house was a little bit different because “it has split zoning and anybody who was going to purchase this property had to understand what the property needed and had to have the funding to do that. We were eager to find someone to take on the project.”
Stark, who was one of two bidders for the property, had to show that he had a definite plan and the money to make it happen, Trout-Edwards says.
The 373 Riverside home is the second property Stark has purchased through the Land Bank. He recently finished rehabbing a home on Woodward Street that was built in 1922. That house sold within two days of being put on the market.
Restoring historical properties is something Stark has been at for awhile. In 2010, Stark and his wife, Alicia, purchased, through an online auction, an Italianate-style home at 651 Capital Avenue NE that was built in 1871. He says the house had been vacant for eight years and was under the ownership of Fannie Mae
when they bought it.
The couple has made that home their primary residence after Alicia Stark said she’d “love to live there.”
Another view of the house at 373 Riverside Drive.
The Capital Avenue property caught the attention of officials with the county and the Land Bank when it served as the backdrop for a fundraiser for VOCES, a nonprofit organization that provides support services and resources to the Latino/Hispanic community in Battle Creek and Southwest Michigan.
“We had a historical home tour that benefitted VOCES,” Stark says. “We raised a lot of money that weekend and we had lines of people going through the house.”
Among the visitors were people with Calhoun County.
Officials with the Land Bank originally brought the Riverside Drive project to him last year, but his wife said “no”. She has since had a change of heart and says this will likely be the last house she and her husband rehab.
Backed by a team of local suppliers and contractors, Stark estimates the Riverside home will take him between 2½ to 3 years to complete. Research conducted by Stark revealed that the home had trim on the floors and that was 10- to 12-inches wide and windows on the main floor that had fluted trim that he intends to duplicate.
“All of the interior trim, cabinets, and fixtures I’ll most likely be doing myself,” Stark says. “I’ve bought a fair amount of houses and flipped them for use as rentals. I think I’ve done 11 houses in the last 15 years.”
His expertise has its roots in his childhood. “My dad was in the real estate business and when I was a kid, my dad, brother, sister and I would paint the houses and I would put the floorcoverings in the houses for my dad,” he says.
Stark has come a long way since then and has been able to take advantage of two programs offered by the Land Bank – Transform This Commercial Property and Transform This Home – both of which serve as catalysts to improving dilapidated properties.
Trout-Edwards says the Land Bank currently has 33 sites for sale. All of the properties are listed with locally-owned Troxel Realty
. Some of the listings are homes and some are vacant land.
The Land Bank has additional lots in its inventory which are not for sale.
“Some of the houses are structurally unsafe and need to be torn down or there isn’t a market for them,” she says. “They also could be negatively impacting property surrounding them and also could be hotspots for crime.”
With historic homes such as the one on Riverside and one at 26 Fremont Street every effort is made to rehab the property if it is found to be structurally sound, Trout-Edwards says. The Fremont home is undergoing significant preservation work under the guidance of the Land Bank. A fundraiser took place in May to cover the cost of ongoing work.
“We knew with the Riverside house we would need a community partner,” Trout-Edwards says. “There is a time and a place for rehabbing or demolition.”
Another view of the house at 373 Riverside Drive.
She says there’s been an increase in the Transform this Home program.
“Houses are going quicker because of the improved economy,” Trout-Edwards says. “The way that we run it has reduced questions. We do safety inspections so that when we list it folks can see the inspection results so they know what they have to do to take care of the house.
“When they do a rehab plan our team reviews it and if we have questions about that work they can resubmit the plan.”
Buyers are able to bring in contractors or realtors with them to walk through the property under consideration. Trout-Edwards says smaller houses tend to go faster.
“A lot of the buyers are local folks and some are contractors,” she says. “It may be someone looking for a house who has a lot of rehab skills. Some folks use contractors. It’s open to a lot of different folks because of the flexibility involved.”
The Land Bank began the Transform This Home program in 2015 and the commercial program began two years later. Both programs came about as a result of looking at what was working in other cities.
“We learned as we went along and talked with a lot of folks who were working with vacant and abandoned properties. In Detroit, properties were often sold through auction houses. We didn’t want to do that, but we liked their rehab plans. We took these concepts and put them into a program that would work here.”
The Land Bank’s funding comes from several sources including property sales, commercial redevelopment, and grant income. They also take in 50 percent of property taxes from the sale of a property for five years. The County Land Bank's annual budget is about $850,000 without grants and about $1 million with grants. “We write a lot of grants,” Trout-Edwards says.
“We’re really trying to change the story of these vacant and abandoned properties.”
Oftentimes, these changes have a ripple effect as Stark would see after rehabbing his home on Capital Avenue.
“When we moved into the Capital Avenue home a lot of our neighbors started doing things to their property. One guy just had tree stumps removed from his front yard,” Stark says, adding that for some of his neighbors he has helped out with the cost of supplies such as paint or siding, in addition to providing sweat equity.
When asked why he has chosen to make these kinds of investments in Battle Creek, Stark says it is all about his commitment to the community.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and my wife has lived here her whole life. We love the downtown and frequently bike on the bike path,” Stark says. “People don’t understand what we have here. We have been frequent visitors to Chicago over the years and Battle Creek has the same movies in the park and events downtown that they have in Chicago.
“There’s so much that this town gives and people take it for granted.”
Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.