reWorking Michigan: Armory becoming home for non-profits

Oct 21, 2011

reWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as citizens of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living and build a future for their families.

This week from reWorking Michigan, our Monday report looks at the project to repurpose the Marshall Street Armory in Lansing into office space for local non-profits. It's nearing completion.

The building was a National Guard facility from 1924 to 2005. The Gillespie Group has spent more than $5-million to turn it into office space while preserving its heritage.

Seven non-profits will occupy the old Armory when move-ins are completed, and the Gillespie Group will also relocate its operations here. In all, the building has 37,000 square feet of space, and when you step inside, you'll see how its history has been preserved.

Most striking is the former gymnasium. Look up, and you'll see the massive steel trusses that were hidden by a drop ceiling for decades. Once that drop ceiling was removed, the trusses barely needed any touch-up paint.

Look down, and you'll see where center court, the free-throw lanes and out-of-bounds lines used to be. Jason Kildea of The Gillespie Group says building office space on top of the court while preserving all those lines was a painstaking process.

"What they did was actually stencil out the whole floor, and made sure they had every dimension of every line, every detail, where center court was," Kildea says. "And so they sanded down to bare wood, and then they actually painted the lines back in, and then we put what was called a ram board over it to protect it while we built on top of it. And then we pulled that ram board up, and we're seal coating now, putting the finishing details on the floor."

Kildea says the business model for this project was to first determine what the non-profits could afford to spend on rent while keeping construction costs down to a point where Gillespie could make a decent profit. The Gillespie Group was able to take advantage of state brownfield and historic preservation tax credits before Michigan eliminated them earlier this month.

Another helpful factor, he adds, was that the non-profits didn't want the building to be "over the top".

"They didn't want it mediocre either," Kildea says. "They didn't want you to come in and say oh, really, you used a vinyl based floor there in the entryway, but it was how do we make it creative and give people that wow factor not to say wow, that's some of the coolest marble tile I've ever seen, because we didn't want that. But we wanted them to come in and say wow, that's one of the coolest ceilings I've ever seen exposed."

Teresa Kmetz is president of the Capital Area United Way, one of the non-profits moving into the Armory. Her staff will settle in next month. She says she expects the agency will save money by sharing phone lines and other services with other non-profits in the building.

Kmetz adds that along with fostering that sort of collaboration, she's glad to be a part of a facility that could transform Lansing.

"Picking the Marshall Street Armory," Kmetz says, "allowed us to put a little more stability into this neighborhood, into this community, to make sure that this building, with a grand history, is able to see use for many more years to come. It's unique in this area, and it's certainly unique across the nation."

Big Brothers Big Sisters Michigan Capital Region Executive Director Phillip Knight echoes Kmetz in talking about collaboration. His agency is set to move in December 1st. Knight is happy with the terms of their 15-year lease.

"It's all-inclusive," Knight says, "so we don't have to worry about snow removal, and security, all the little things that are so time-consuming and distracting, frees us up to be able to do what we want to do, which is find better and more exciting ways to serve people."

The Gillespie Group is so pleased with the Armory project that they're looking into buying the shuttered Moores River School from the Lansing School District for similar restoration. The key will be how successfully the developer can compete for a finite amount of state economic development grant dollars to do the job.