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.”
One of the City Councilmembers recently dropped me a note about a complaint he received from a resident regarding a particularly aggressive door to door solicitor who was operating under the company name “Direct Energy.”
It turns out that “Direct Energy” has not received a permit to perform any solicitation in Kent so if they come to your door, please call the City Manager’s office (330 676-7500) to let us know so that we can ask the Police to follow up.
We recently issued 12 solicitation permits for door to door sales for agents of the company “Just Energy” — but not “Direct Energy” — so it can be confusing.
All solicitors are required to register in our office, provide photo ID’s, and show proof of insurance. Residents can ask to see their validated City permit but we’ve seen some examples of creative bending of those rules so if in doubt residents are encouraged to call the non-Emergency police dispatch number at 330 673-7732 to verify the credibility of the permit before giving them their money or account information.
The energy business must be pretty competitive these days because we seem to be getting a lot of permit requests for agents in energy sales.
The recent circulation of concept plans by the property owner for a new 60’ building at the corner of Erie Street and Franklin Avenue (site of the former Ramella’s establishment) has led to some conversations about the “fit” of that building in that part of downtown.
If you missed the newspaper article about it, the owner is proposing to demo the current buildings and then put a bakery, a restaurant, and a bar on the first 2 floors, with 16 mid-to-high end apartments in the upper floors of a new building.
Functionally, that proposed mixed use would fit well with a vibrant downtown – so I think the question about fit is likely more about the size of the building.
When asked recently for my opinion on the scale question by a City resident, I offered the following reply:
You raise good questions and while I’m flattered you asked for my opinion, the important opinion to get is that of the members of the community like you. My role is to make sure that community consensus (balanced with property rights laws) gets translated into all of our Codes and rules for development and redevelopment.
Right now, the community consensus as reflected in the City’s Zoning Code allows buildings up to 60′ high in downtown Kent so this proposed restaurant, bakery and 16-unit apartment complex matches the current definition of what the community is looking for in downtown Kent — which means it doesn’t require any special City approvals (other than basic building code stuff) to get built.
Whether I like the size of the building or not is largely irrelevant because the property owner has the right to build up to 60′ high in the downtown without the City’s approval — and in turn it is illegal for the City to say, “no, we don’t like that project” and deny it when it meets the Code.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some opportunities to influence the design and to try to optimize the positive aspects of the project and minimize the negative aspects but those are mostly trimming at the edges rather than all-out stopping a project when it meets the Code.
That’s essentially the same situation that the residents living around the former DuBois property on East Main Street became so frustrated with — the Zoning Code allows a coffee shop use on that property — and the neighbors and the City had no recourse to stop it. The Planning Commission tried to vote the project down but the local judge overturned the Planning Commission’s decision and proceeded to chastise the City and Planning Commission for not abiding by its own Zoning laws. It’s a tough situation, we understand the residents’ concerns and we’d like to help but we also have to honor the law which is largely on the side of the property owner when they meet the Code.
Back to the proposed downtown project, it’s probably worth mentioning that the property owner is not a “big city” developer; it’s a small “mom and pop” husband and wife team who decades ago came to Kent from Iran and Kuwait and they are so proud to call Kent home that they want to take their retirement savings to invest in this dream project of theirs. That’s a classic Kent story — and it’s the kind of owner that the Bicentennial Plan said the community wants more of — but I also understand that the idea of a 60′ building along Franklin Street may not fit everyone’s idea of a right-sized dream project.
So where does that leave us?
It’s time to have a review and meaningful community conversations about the City’s Zoning Code. We’re currently in step 1 of a two-step process to first clean up the outdated language in our Zoning Code and second to revisit the Zoning maps and land uses all over town to make sure those rules guide development in a manner that is current with the latest consensus of the community (again balanced against property rights laws).
A lot has changed in the last 15 years and it’s a good time to test the Zoning conditions for things like building height, density and adjacent uses for the very reasons you suggest. Development is all about the context and I think that’s what got your attention with this project — from your perspective the height seems out of proportion with what’s already there and may impact the view shed and change the character of downtown Kent to something more akin to Lakewood which is not something you’re a fan of. That’s exactly the kind of community conversation that needs to happen and will happen in step 2 of the Zoning Code review which will lead us into our Comprehensive Plan update.
Starting those conversations now won’t likely prevent the current proposed project because it takes a good year to fully develop a community consensus on what’s appropriate for Zoning Code changes but it helps to frame the discussions for what comes next and how all of the different parts and pieces of downtown Kent will fit together.
I’m sure you’d prefer to have a more expeditious Zoning intervention but trust me, nothing starts lawsuits faster than changing the Zoning rules for private property which means we have to be very transparent, deliberate and methodical in considering any changes, and that just takes time.
Zoning is a tool for cities to use to help guide investment in ways that line up with the aspirations of the community — so when it comes to Zoning there’s not a right or a wrong answer, it’s all about finding the right fit. That’s our top priority heading in to 2018.
I hope this helps answer some of your questions.