Cleveland developer John Ferchill first began renovating historic buildings in the late 1970s because he was short on cash. He had developed a couple of subsidized housing projects in northeast Ohio, but wanted to work on bigger deals.
“I needed to find a way to do them using other people's money,” he says. “I quickly learned there were funds for historic rehabs and, because they're so complicated, no competition.”
Since then The Ferchill Group has taken on $1 billion in urban developments in blue-collar markets such as Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. It was the company's highly successful undertaking of a mixed-use project near a new sports arena in Cleveland that led Ferchill to make his latest and boldest move: a $180 million renovation of Detroit's historic Book-Cadillac Hotel.
Situated at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue, the 33-story tower opened in 1924 as the world's tallest hotel. It was built on the site of the former Cadillac Hotel for $14 million by three brothers — James, Herbert and Frank Book — big players in Detroit with other projects along Washington Avenue.
For six decades, auto industry magnates, U.S. presidents, and sports and entertainment celebrities frequented the luxurious 1,200-room hotel. But after companies began fleeing to the suburbs in the 1970s, Detroit's downtown lost its luster in a big way. The Book-Cadillac closed for renovations in 1984 and never reopened. Vandals made off with anything of value, including decorative plaster and brass pieces.
The city took control of the property in 2001. After a couple of stalled redevelopment attempts, the city turned to The Ferchill Group, which paid just $1 for the property in July 2006. A complete overhaul will restore the property to its original Italian-renaissance grandeur by late 2008, when it will reopen as a 455-room Westin Book-Cadillac Detroit Hotel.
Besides its revived signature grand ballroom and Italian garden, the property will include new retail shops and restaurants, plus 67 luxury condominiums on the top eight floors. The condo units sold out within about 120 days, Ferchill says, fetching prices from $375,000 to $1.3 million. Buyers are attracted to the urban location — near Detroit's new football and baseball stadiums — and the cachet of living at the famous Book-Cadillac.
The stadiums and nearby casinos, coupled with a dearth of quality hotel options in the area, are combining to create a rebounding Motor City market, Ferchill says. The Book-Cadillac will cater to the event and business crowd by offering ballroom and meeting space, something Ferchill says has been available only in the suburbs.
To make the project financially feasible, Ferchill secured the buy-in of 22 different investors, including a minority-owned bank and several Detroit employee pension funds. It took more than a year to pull the Byzantine financial package together.
“The real story here is the unprecedented community effort,” says Ferchill. “The Book-Cadillac is a Detroit icon. Everyone has a vested interest in its success.”