Lofts in Translation

The 2,000-square-foot penthouse, the only condo on the fourth floor (and as of print date, still unsold), shines with personality. The open-ceiling concept exposes metal girders. Shelves line the living-area wall with a stainless-steel, rolling library ladder. A skylight towers above the half bath. (Even on a rainy day, the skylight supplies sufficient lighting for the bathroom.) Batik wood acts as the multi-headed shower’s floor. Pocket doors between rooms allow for more space. The front rooftop area has a raised patio over a rock bed, giving an illusion of a creek.

Mike Martin, whose company Architectural Renovators restores historic homes, developed the five lofts at The Marlocon. The Boonville native, who now lives in a home in the Riverside Historic District, liked the open spaces of loft living and followed the efforts of developers in Chicago and St. Louis. “It made me more interested in that ultra-modern feel of open space and having it in an old building,” Martin says. “You have a mix of old and new together.”

Martin is not alone. In late 2006, after transforming the old J.C. Penney store on Main Street into a 23 unit condo development, The Kunkel Group pumped in nearly $5 million to renovate the former deJong’s building into a 31-condo complex. Before the first construction worker stepped foot on site, nine condos were already sold. With a first floor housing a one-story drug store, John Stratman transformed the second floor of his Main Street building into five loft apartments. Pat Rayburn and Bill Bussing Jr. renovated the former Permanent Federal Building on Third Street, creating 21 condos. In May 2007, Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel announced the historic McCurdy Hotel will undergo a $7.2 million transformation, turning the then retirement home into an 80-unit, upscale apartment building.

The last time Downtown Evansville saw this much action, Harry S. Truman was president. Turning a slumping Downtown into an economically prosperous area has been a source of debate that is decades old. Even when 42-year-old, Evansville-native Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel describes his memories of Downtown, he says with a laugh, “Tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street.” Nearly 200 condos and lofts have been built since 2004, and interest in the Downtown is blossoming. Loft developments are proof Downtown living is back, Chuck Harper, vice president of The Kunkel Group says. Has the moment come when years of bar arguments, newspaper rantings, and city council meetings about the dilapidating Downtown end? For these Evansvillians — developers Ben Kunkel, Mike Martin, Pat Rayburn, Bill Bussing Jr., John Stratman, Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel — they don’t debate how to revitalize. They act. They believe.[pagebreak]

The Mayor
The dwindling Downtown has been a constant concern for the city because visitors’ perceptions of Evansville is linked to the Downtown, Weinzapfel contends. “When people think of Evansville, they’re going to think about the Downtown and its riverfront,” he says. “When you have a decaying Downtown, they are going to think negatively of your community.”

When the Downtown is in need of a big boost, where do you start? Weinzapfel says four areas need improvement: transportation, employment, entertainment, and housing. In March 2008, the state government will accept construction bids for a new interchange at Lloyd Expressway and Fulton Avenue, providing easier access into Downtown. Since 2003, more than 3,000 jobs have boosted the Downtown economy and American General and Berry Plastics are both now expanding, adding 400 new jobs. In December 2006, Casino Aztar opened a new entertainment area, The District, with three new bars: Blush Ultralounge and Tapas Bar, Ri Ra Irish Pub, and Jillian’s Billiards Club. To boost residential housing, the mayor instituted a loft-incentive program in 2004. The city offered a $20,000 grant for loft developers per unit. Developers accepted the incentives. Since then, through various loft programs, the city has provided nearly $2.5 million in grants and loans. That’s translated into $21 million of Downtown housing projects, Weinzapfel says.

The Developers
The Kunkel Group’s Harper, admits constructing their first condominium building “did take a leap of faith.” And Ben Kunkel isn’t sure why 2006 was the time to start their loft development efforts. “We just saw an incredible need for housing Downtown,” he says. “We jumped in and gave people an option.” That option began with the Renaissance on Main, a 24-unit complex that was the former J.C. Penney building, abandoned in 1981. The building had no windows on its perimeter walls, except for the storefront. The condos needed views, however, so The Kunkel Group removed 100 tons of bricks from the exterior walls. “This is what made it financially feasible,” Ben says. “Otherwise, it just would have been 5,000-square-foot condominiums.

“Plus it put a stamp on the period of time that we renovated the building. We didn’t want to go back and just recreate what it looked like when it was built.” Nearly 50 windows later, the facade of the former Penney’s has a new look and incredible views of the Old Courthouse, an 1890 colossal building of 19th century German Baroque architecture.

In February 2007, The Kunkel Group began construction on the Meridian Plaza, a renovation of the building once housed by the former Evansville-based clothing retailer deJong’s. The plans for the building, which included 15,500 square feet of commercial space, is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2008. The Meridian Plaza will usher a new look with a five-story annex tower, topped with a 2,500-square-foot penthouse.

The interior designs for both Kunkel Group projects vary between condos. Open-floor plans include 10-12-foot ceilings with bamboo, slate, and travertine flooring options. Granite countertops shine in the kitchen, highlighted by stainless steel appliances and cherry and maple cabinetry. The bathrooms’ whirlpool or Jacuzzi® tubs are reasons to relax. Ben Kunkel expects construction to be completed by spring 2008.

In 2006, developers Pat Rayburn and W.C. Bud Bussing sold the penthouse of their 21-condo complex before construction began on the former, 43-year-old Permanent Federal Building at Third and Locust Streets. One of the complex’s most alluring features: the 9,000-square-foot rooftop with a spectacular view. The gazebo creates a comfortable resting place between strokes on the roof’s putting greens. The view reveals the bend in the river and stretches southeast to encompass the twin bridges. The condos of The Plaza Downtown display a modern and digital sensibility with Italian and Greek bathroom fixtures, full glass frontages, and pre-wired capabilities for surround-sound systems.[pagebreak]

The Ultra-Modern Developer
Mike Martin’s efforts ignited in 1999, beginning a series of loft projects for the next nine years. His first project was the former Gottam Building (615 Main St.). With 16-foot high ceilings for the second-floor loft apartment, the Gottam, built in 1890, was a mixed-use building with retail space on the first floor. Next, utilizing the mayor’s loft incentive program, Martin tackled a corner building on Third Street, creating two new loft apartments and a rooftop sun-porch. Martin then converted the second floor of Maxine’s Antiques on Main Street into a loft apartment.

“(All of our buildings) stand out in their own way,” Martin says, “because we try to develop not only the interior but the exterior as well.” This is most evident in Martin’s first condo development, The Marlocon, a building vacant for nearly 20 years. Completed in 2007, the four-story building now has five ultra-modern condos (with two still unsold) and two retail spaces on the first floor, including longtime retail stalwart The Rug Merchant on the first level.

With a building this old (more than 100 years), construction plans called for an interior demolition because Martin discovered rotted roof and floor systems caused by water damage throughout the years. Through the renovations, the condos range in size and character. A third-floor condo, for example, has 21-foot high ceilings with a Japanese bath in the mezzanine hallway.

The Entrepreneur
The debate over the decaying Downtown has raged for more than 30 years when the city first prohibited traffic on Main Street between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Riverside Drive. It was an effort to compete with growing East-Side shopping developments. Their 1971 decision created a Main Street pedestrian mall. Interest in the Downtown slowly trickled away because, as John Stratman, owner of Stratman’s Pharmacy on Main Street said, “People don’t want to walk.” When the Main Street Walkway was opened to cars in 2002, parking for Stratman’s Pharmacy more than tripled, he says.

It was the boost he needed. In 2006, the pharmacy — a convenience and drug store with a restaurant, the Garden Café — continued its growth when John and his son Nick Stratman completed their five loft apartments on the second floor. Exposed brick throughout each apartment, the ambiance feels unique to Evansville, says Stratman’s resident Andrew Michel, a quality that attracted the Evansville native to the Downtown. “It’s a city-feel even though we’re in Evansville,” says Michel, who’s lived in a two-bed unit for more than a year with roommate Alex Clayton. From the 2,500-seat auditorium, The Centre, to the numerous bars down Main Street, his apartment’s proximity to the Downtown nightlife is an added bonus.

And the unique character of each apartment is the main attraction. A glass and brick shower in one unit provides a peaceful experience while a renovated elevator shaft is the perfect reading alcove. Rooftop access offers a grill and a river view.

Downtown Visions
Can you believe in the revitalization of the Downtown, though?

“What you see today is not what you will see five years from now,” Weinzapfel says, “I think the train has left the station, and more change is on the horizon.”

What the Downtown needs now is storefronts bustling, neighbors chatting on the street, restaurant patios filled with patrons, and a grocery packed with all the amenities. The Downtown is more retail-ready now than it’s been in years, Martin says, because of the creation of these mixed-use loft complexes.

It’s a start. He believes.

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