Anytime we have an opportunity to be a part of a building restoration project, we get pretty excited — but the former L.N. Gross Building holds a special place in Kent history so we were delighted when we heard a father and son team out of Youngstown (with Kent State University ties) were interested in the property and wanted to give it the kind of makeover we all thought it deserved.
The only thing better than talking about a building restoration project is seeing it done even better than you imagined — and that’s exactly what happened with this iconic Kent building.
The attention to details and commitment to the historic character of the building in the restoration is truly exceptional. So much so in fact that even the Crain’s Cleveland Business magazine featured it in a recent article that I wanted to pass along.
Positive press for redevelopment and restoration in Kent never gets old.
Kent building gets makeover, new tenants
As far as downtown businesses go, a city can do worse than having a top-notch, progressive architecture firm.
Case in point, Kent, which has not only just such a firm as a growing source of professional employment, but it’s also helping facilitate the redevelopment of the city’s historic L.N. Gross Building, which soon will house Richard Fleischman|DS Architecture.
That “soon” — according to principal Jeffrey Meyers — is Jan. 11, when DS will be one of two tenants sharing the 20,000-square-foot building.
“We’ll be fully occupied, but with plans for expansion already,” Meyers said.
The other tenant is Meyers’ client — and the owner of the L.N. Gross building — Canfield-based Renaissance 2000, a development company owned by Youngstown’s Cene family, said Renaissance vice president Ryan Cene.
The Cenes are the building’s sole owners, and DS is their architectural firm for the project, Cene said.
Renaissance purchased the building in 2015 and will use it to house another family startup, the bottled water company On Us Aqua LLC, which Ryan Cene will lead as president, he said.
The company plans to access limestone-filtered water from a deep local aquifer and put it in locally made recyclable aluminum bottles, a process Meyers said his architects had to design around. Renaissance says on its website that the water is worth it, though. Cene said the bottles will be produced in Youngstown, where his family was previously in the aluminum extrusion business.
“We discovered that the water in Kent, Ohio, was highly praised year after year as the “Best Tasting Municipality Water” at the long-running Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. So we will produce a bottled water brand called On Us that emphasizes recycling,” the company says on its site.
For Fleischman|DS, designing around needs of a water bottler was only one of the things that has made the project challenging, Meyers said.
The L.N. Gross building, downtown on Gougler Avenue, is a local art-deco landmark that was built in 1928, and there’s about $2.1 million in state and federal government grants and tax credits backing the $6 million project, Meyers said. That comes with some limitations, particularly those attached to historic tax credits that guide how a building can be altered, especially in the front. For example, Meyers said his firm had to find a custom glass maker that could make windows for the front of the building that would preserve its historic look but also meet standards for high efficiency.
That’s why when the architecture firm does expand, it’s eyeing ways to do it in the rear of the building, he said.
But so far, the firm has been able to meet the tax credit requirements as well as those required for LEED certification for sustainability, Meyers said.
The building includes features like a slow-release watery system for its roof, which slows water and filters it through substrate before allowing it to run off into the Cuyahoga River or storm sewers, Meyers said.
There’s also access to a bike path in the back and green space.
The entire project was a labor of love that included taking some parts of the building apart and putting them back together again as before, just with far more structural integrity.
The building got new central heat and air, but designers put its old boiler system to use in a new and highly efficient way, Meyers said. It wraps around the base of the building’s exterior, warming it. As the heat rises up, the building becomes more or less enveloped in a blanket of warmed brick, he said, making heating the interior a snap.
But why put so much love, and money, into an old building with such needs? For one, it’s a great building and for another, Fleischman|DS needed a landmark home, Meyers said. The firm has been growing quickly in recent years.
The firm works so closely with Renaissance president Bob Cene that he’s a regular visitor with his own keys to the offices, Meyers said, noting that Cene is an architect himself.
If you’re wondering, yes, that means Fleischman|DS staffers had Cene looking over their shoulders, or even coming in to “do sketches,” Meyers said.
But, to be fair, the main reason the building is opening a month or so later than planned is because Fleischman|DS made its own “change orders” with the buildings’ custom furniture maker, he conceded with a chuckle.
Not all of the firm’s business in recent years has been as challenging or as sexy as its home office project. But a steady stream of industrial plants, prisons, government facilities, universities and other projects have kept the firm plenty busy on a regional basis.
“I’d say we’re kind of an east-of-the-Mississippi firm,” Meyers said.
Locally, it’s either recently done or is working on major projects for Kent State University, the University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and Kent’s police department, he said.
Earlier this year, DS joined with Cleveland architect Richard Fleischman, along with three of Fleischman’s professionals, to form Richard Fleischman|DS Architecture.
Since 2010, DS has had big growth generally.
“In 2010, there were four people at the firm … now we’re up to 28 people with 12 architects,” Meyers said.
Revenues have followed suit, he said, increasing from about $300,000 to more than $2 million annually, Meyers said.
Between the new digs in Kent and offices that the firm maintains at Fleischman’s former site on Huron Avenue in downtown Cleveland, Fleischman|DS probably has the room it needs for the next two years, Meyers said.
“We’re beyond happy — our firm now has two of the premier design spaces in NEO,” Meyers said.
The firm has, at both locations, snazzy digs that are required to attract new talent in the industry — something the firm intends to keep doing, he noted.
“The (L.N. Gross) building right now is set up for 30 (employees), and the Cleveland office is set up for 10, so that should allow us to grow for the next couple of years,” Meyers said.
Plans have not been made yet, he said, but the firm envisions one day expanding at its new offices in Kent, according to Meyers.
“We believe in it — we signed a 20-year lease,” he said. “If we need to go bigger, we will.”