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Forrest Block cuts
The Forest Block runs from 4th and Brady streets to the railroad overpass at 5th and Brady streets in Davenport. Monday December 14, 2009. (Larry Fisher/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

Nearly a year after the owners of Restoration St. Louis announced they were tackling the Forrest Block Building as their next project in downtown Davenport, construction has begun.

“We started the Forrest Block yesterday,” Amy Gill said Tuesday to the applause of the Downtown Partnership’s board of directors. Gill and her husband, Amrit, also are the developers behind the renovation of the nearby Blackhawk Hotel.

Gill said the Forrest Block plans call for renovating the building at 4th and Brady streets into 26 market-rate units, including four live-and-work spaces.

“It’s going to be a real cool building,” she said. Among the features is an open-air atrium in the center of the building that will look like “being in New Orleans” with some of the apartments looking out onto the courtyard.

It was the news that downtown Davenport business and community leaders have been waiting to hear. The century-old building has sat empty since the late 1980s and has been an eyesore at the well-traveled intersection.

“It was fun to have this news to tell them,” Gill said after giving the update during the Downtown Partnership’s board meeting at the German American Heritage Center in Davenport.

“It’s a significant building in our downtown and we’re thrilled Restoration St. Louis is making the investment in downtown,” said Tom Flaherty, senior vice president of the Downtown Partnership, an arm of the Iowa Quad-Cities Chamber. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Tara Barney, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, said given the building’s age and the complexity of the project “I’m sure it’s not going to be the easiest project. But if anybody has got the stomach or expertise for it, it’s the Gills. This is very exciting for downtown.”

While renovations are quickly moving ahead at the Blackhawk Hotel, she said financing and the difficult credit market nationally was at the root of the delays behind the $3.5 million Forrest Block project. Restoration St. Louis, based in Missouri, first announced last April that it planned to convert the 36,000-square-foot structure into luxury apartments.

“Financing right now is impossible. It’s going to have to change,” she said of the credit market.

In fact, the City of Davenport had to step in last fall to approve a $1.8 million bridge loan to keep the Forrest Block project moving ahead after asbestos was discovered and increased the cost. Under the terms, the city will receive 5.75 percent interest over four years.

Last week the project took another step forward when Restoration St. Louis signed a contract last with BSI Constructors, the St. Louis contractor that also is leading the $40 million renovation of the Blackhawk. She said it made sense to use the same contractor for both projects, but added that BSI bids the work out to local contractors.

“There will be about $1.9 million in local construction on the Forrest Block,” she said. “That will be good for everybody and put some people to work.”

She estimated the project will create another 40 construction jobs over the next six months.

One new hiccup is the discovery just Monday night of a load-bearing wall that developers did not know existed. “So we’re back to the drawing board and we’ll have to rebid some of the work,” she said.

They also are awaiting approval of  windows by the National Park Service, which oversees preservation issues with historic buildings. The Forrest Block has been on the National Historic Register since 1983.

“Everybody gives a sigh of relief when you get windows in,” she said, adding that it will take eight to 10 weeks to manufacture the windows.

“You’re not going to see a lot of activity except people walking in and out,” Gill said. “But we started framing this week.”

She estimates the building will be complete at the beginning of next year.

Flaherty added that the project comes at a time when there is “strong demand for market rate apartments.” “I don’t know of anybody downtown that is less than 90 percent occupied,” he said, adding that some of the properties with income restrictions have a few vacancies.”

Barney said the project also begins to widen the inventory of downtown living choices. Due to a lack of market-rate apartments, “if people are interested in living downtown and they don’t meet the income restrictions of the other properties it is not available to them. Most of the new projects have been a mix of affordable and market rate because that is what the state has been able to help on,” she said.

“This also puts us on the road to having owner-occupied options in downtown,” she added. “It’s a continuum. As you build inventory and stakeholders in living downtown, they might rent for awhile and then they want the option to buy. And we want to be ready for them.”

The project also was greeted by enthusiasm by Downtown Partnership members such as commercial real estate agent Marge Stratton. “I’m very excited about what I heard. I’m very excited about the Blackhawk, the Forrest Block and life coming back to downtown. It’s fortunate they are taking this majestic building and recreating what it once was.”

She expects the excitement to spread. “The creation of additional residential units and the opening of the Blackhawk Hotel will bring great synergy to bring additional people to our downtown,” said Stratton, who represents One Putnam Centre, which includes the half block on 2nd Street with the Putnam and Parker buildings.

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