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Wednesday, May 25,2011

First sparkle of summer

Knapp’s building restoration work will soon poke into daylight

by Lawrence Cosentino

This story was updated May 25.


In
the next two weeks, eagle-eyed downtown lunch eaters will be able to
spot the first visible sign of work on Lansing’s next big renovation
project, the conversion of the historic Knapp’s building into a
mixed-use business, retail and residential slab.


The 1937 Streamline Moderne landmark, a department
store until 1980 and idle since 2002, has sucked up its fair share of
dirt and corrosion. Looking for a way to brighten up the fašade,
historic preservationists will punch out a test section of second-floor
glass bricks on the east face of the building, facing Washington
Square, and replace them with new ones.


“When
we put new glass block in, it will start to sparkle again,”
preservation specialist Elisabeth Knibbe, of Ann Arbor-based Quinn
Evans Architects, said. “I think you’re going to see the potential of
that in that sample. We’re pretty excited about that.”


The
National Register of Historic Places lists Knapp’s as “a landmark in
the progress of the modern movement in architecture in Michigan.” The
building’s clean lines and bright colors zoom out of a long-gone era
when locomotives, ocean liners, automobiles and diners were designed
and built in high style.


The
original glass bricks are ribbed, or textured, and pitted with grime.
On the test section, the preservation team will use clear glass bricks.


The
preservation team wants to find out whether the change in material
from ribbed glass bricks to clear ones will change the appearance of
the fašade. That call will be up to the State Historic Preservation
Office and the National Park Service, watchdogs of the building’s
historic designation.


“Is the
fact that the block is ribbed a character-defining feature, or is it
just important that it’s glass block?” Knibbe asked. “What really
matters is its effect on the historic character of the building.”


Knapp’s
is very large for a Streamline Moderne creation — a spiffy Art Deco
diner on a Queen Mary scale. Its dynamic shell is a multi-layer Jell-O
mold of glass bricks alternating with shiny yellow and blue maul
macotta, or ceramic slabs faced with concrete.


When
the glass issue is settled, Knibbe said, the maul macotta is the next
field of battle. Many of the building’s shiny plates are sagging,
detaching and even flapping in the May breeze. Earlier this year,
restorers drilled test holes through the wall from inside the building
and found that the underlying concrete is intact in some areas but
crumbling away in others.


A metal rain screen system, with joint covers that match the original seams, is ready to be deployed where needed.


“We
have found a replacement system where we think we can do a pretty dead
ringer for the original,” Knibbe said. “We’ve got great color matches.
I’m going to submit those to the state and the feds for approval.”


The
plan is to fill that shiny shell with another layered Jell-O of mixed
uses, beginning with retail and restaurant space on the first floor.
Knapp’s owners George and Louis Eyde will move their East Lansing
development company into the finished building, which also will house a
small business incubator run by the Lansing Economic Development
Corp., with a layer of apartments on the top floor. The fifth floor is
set back, like the deck of a ship, so the apartments will have patios.


“The
most interesting thing in the building is the atrium we’re putting in
the center,” Knibbe said. “It’s turning out to be a nice feature that
will let a lot of light in.”


Bob
Trezise, president and CEO of the LEDC, said talks are under way with
several prospective tenants, but declined to name them until deals are
sealed.


“You don’t see it on the
building, but we’ve spent a great deal of time, money and energy spent
on moving this project forward,” Mark Clouse, general counsel for the
Eydes, said.


A completed
schematic design was “the first major architectural step,” Knibbe said.
Another round of cost estimation is underway.


Initial estimates of the project’s cost hovered near $20 million, but more recent estimates set it closer to $40 million.


The
project floats on another — invisible — Jell-O of financial incentive
layers that parlay the building’s historic status and downtown location
into state and federal tax credits.


Today, the Michigan Strategic Fund approved a 12-year Renaissance Zone abatement worth $2.6 million. Other incentives include $5 million in federal “new market” tax credits and a Brownfield Michigan Business Tax credit worth $4.9 million.


To
Knibbe’s and Trezise’s relief, the project’s Michigan Business Tax
credit was locked in before Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration cut the
credit. The project also secured an enhanced state historic credit,
limited to three projects a year, before that credit was also cut.


“We were really glad we got the special consideration last year,” Knibbe said. “We may be the last project that gets it.”


Glass
tests and schematic drawings are one thing, but to steam away from the
pier and begin heavy work, the S.S. Knapp’s is awaiting word on a
federal Brownfield Economic Development Initiative, or BEDI, grant.


By
now, Trezise said, the federal government should have opened the
window for proposals on the remaining $17 million of BEDI grants
nationally.


“That was supposed to happen in December, and here we are in May, still waiting,” he said.


Several clocks are ticking at once, Trezise said.


“(The
Eydes) are paying taxes, they’re incurring expense, the building
continues to deteriorate, and potential tenants get nervous.”


To
turn the BEDI over, developers need to receive official notice that
funds have been released, complete an application and submit it for
review.


“It’s not a good scenario, but it’s manageable for a number of more months,” he said.


In the meantime, Clouse said, there’s no choice but to pick away at the preliminaries.


“If we just sit back and wait for every single item to line up perfectly, nothing is ever going to happen,” he said.

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