Making The Old Y New And Historic

October 11, 2004
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Nemitz was chosen by Second Story Properties to transform the vast YMCA building at 33 Library Ave. NE into deluxe living quarters that will appeal to older adults.

The plan is to carve out roughly 40 roomy condominiums across the 125,000 square feet of the eight-story downtown building. But at the same time, the mission is to preserve the 89-year-old structure’s historic flavor and identity.

There isn’t any question whether Nemitz can handle the task.

Long respected for his renovation work, Nemitz is considered one of the state’s best designers in the historic field.

“Tom is adept at dealing with the unique issues and challenges that are present in historic buildings,” said Jennifer Metz, a board member of the Kent County Council for Historic Preservation and Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

Still, the work does present a few challenges, even for Nemitz.

One test he faces is that much of the Y is walled-off into what amounts to a large number of single-room apartments.

“That is probably the biggest challenge with the physical aspect of the building,” Nemitz said.

“It was designed as one-room housing with shared toilet facilities. Our conversion is to totally rehab it into fairly good-sized condominiums with two and three bedrooms, places with a lot of character and a lot of windows overlooking the city,” Nemitz said.

“This is a little bit tougher than working with a wide-open warehouse,” he added.

Not many interior walls have to come tumbling down in redesigning a warehouse, so the structural security of such a building doesn’t come into question.

But in the Y, a whole bunch of walls have to fall to make room for the condos, which will range in size from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet.

“Luckily, the building was built as a column structure, so a lot of the interior walls are non-load bearing and that makes it a little bit easier to open up spaces,” Nemitz said.

“There are quite a few columns because they designed the older buildings with a closer base and, of course, this building is built like a rock. It’s very solid,” said Nemitz.

Creating access throughout the building shouldn’t add too many degrees of design difficulty, either. The building will be accessible via a new, faster, and ADA-approved elevator that will be installed where the old one is located.

“One of the key components of the project is to create a new parking structure in the footprint of where the pool is and the elevator will serve those levels as well as kind of a secured entry,” said Nemitz.

Throughout the design process Nemitz has to keep in mind that older adults will be living there and he will have to incorporate features into the blueprints that need to meet with their approval. Doing that, however, often isn’t as easy as it may sound.

“It’s always a challenge to design it for the market that you are targeting it for, but also making it flexible enough because markets change. The older market is loosely defined. It runs from probably 50 to 80 and there are a lot of subcategories in that range,” he said.

“We have to make it flexible enough so it appeals to the younger segment of that population, but also, as they grow older, it doesn’t become foreign to them.”

His design will have to integrate common areas for recreation and social interaction, a rooftop greenhouse, an outdoor garden, a café, some lower-level office space, fitness areas, a pool, and whatever other amenity comes up between now and next spring.

On the plus side, Nemitz said he doesn’t see the exterior of the building changing much because only a few additions were made to the Y over its lengthy life since it opened.

That means there isn’t much to undo to return the entire building to its historic look.

Second Story Properties plans to submit the structure to the U.S. Green Building Council for LEED certification once the renovation is done, which is fine with Nemitz. He doesn’t think having to meet those standards is an extra burden for the design.

“For the certification process, we just need to be a little more astute through the process for the paperwork. Renovation kind of goes hand-in-hand with the concept,” he said.

“We’re not hauling materials to a landfill,” he added. “We’re reusing them.”

“It’s just making an old building more energy-efficient. I think the LEED certification is the right thing to do and not unheard of for renovated buildings.”

Second Story Properties President Sam Cummings, who is investing $15 million into the project, told the Business Journal earlier that he was looking to close on the property in May when YMCA officials hope to leave the structure for their new building on Lake Michigan Drive NW.

And Nemitz said he plans to have his work done by the time the ink dries on the title.

“We’re in the preliminary design stages right now and we probably have a good month- and-a-half to two months for that,” he said.

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