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Once and Future Architecture: How Creative Renovation Became Good Business

 
 

Who doesn’t have a soft spot for elegant vintage buildings full of local history? Take a walk around the blocks lying just south of Front Street in downtown Boise and you’ll see an intriguing combination of revitalized old structures and sleek, modern retail storefronts.

Projects like these, called property conversions or redevelopment, are popping up all over the country. Rather than starting from scratch on new buildings, many developers are finding new ways to utilize existing space. In the process, they are revitalizing neglected pockets of downtown real estate, as abandoned warehouses metamorphose into elegant offices and storefronts.

In Boise, Idaho and other cities commercial building owners and landlords are getting creative as construction costs rise and rental rates don’t. Developers are finding that, in order to get adequate financing for new construction, their property rental rates have to start at $25 or more per square foot. With market rates hovering around $20 per square foot, redevelopment becomes an attractive strategy for providing new office space at lower rents than a completely new building would require.

Boise’s redevelopment renaissance got a major boost several years ago when the property between Front and Myrtle Streets—stretching east to Capitol and west to 9th Street—became available. The anchor for the collection of sidelined buildings and warehouses was the 8th Street Marketplace. Developer Mark Rivers had a vision of turning it into a shopping and entertainment destination. The result grew into BoDo (short for “Boise Downtown”), which now hosts a theater complex, upscale boutiques, retail stores, sidewalk cafes, and office space.

Many businesses are attracted to office properties with vintage character. BoDo accommodates a wide variety of them, from one- or two-person shops to large firms, from high-tech companies to ad agencies to law and accounting firms. Even small office users can find a home in Boise. Individual offices suites of 125-400 square feet are available with short-term leases in the 8th Street warehouse building.

Near the corner of 9th and Front Streets is one of Boise’s most unique office warehouse conversions. Known as the Foster’s Building, this 4-story structure at 314 South 9th Street was built in 1910 for the W.P. Fuller Paint Company. The building has an unusual triangular shape and one of the walls is curved to conform to the path of the adjacent railroad tracks.

Instead of tearing Foster’s down, the BoDo developers chose to take advantage of its historical value and distinctive architecture. The building was saved by a creative plan that literally enveloped the old warehouse in the middle of a new office building and parking garage.

Environmentally speaking, re-using an old building and bringing it up to modern standards and codes is an infinitely greener move than demolishing and rebuilding. But revitalizing has its challenges. The BoDo project developers had to deal with numerous environmental issues, including lead paint and petroleum contamination. Seventeen fuel tanks located underground near the corner of Front and Capitol that had to be removed at a remediation cost of $1.5M.

BoDo isn’t the only property conversion in town. Just down the street off Grove and Main, the Linen District is staging a major comeback. Already a vibrant spot just slightly off the beaten path, the Linen District houses Big City Coffee, Second Chance Building Materials, Evans Keane law firm, and the Visual Arts Collective.

The Empire Building at 205 North 10th Street is a shining example of what redevelopment can do. It was originally constructed of heavy timber and masonry, and had reached the point where it needed to either be drastically renovated or torn down. The decision to keep this landmark meant completely reinforcing the infrastructure with a new steel framework.

It’s no mystery why property conversions are so popular. They preserve and enhance the character of downtown streets and communities. They make sense environmentally, recycling structures and materials and advancing the trend toward greener building practices. And they offer an economical, creative real estate strategy, enabling developers and landlords to offer unique, chic commercial space at reasonable rents while keeping beloved old buildings alive.

 

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