Local architectural firm expands to Detroit area

October 3, 2009
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Cornerstone Architects recently opened its third office — in a location that may surprise some people because the area isn’t exactly in the middle of an economic revival.

The award-winning firm, which turned 20 years old this year, began officially doing business last month in southeastern Michigan at its new office in St. Clair Shores.

With a longstanding presence in Grand Rapids and Traverse City, Cornerstone Architects is now looking to the southeast side of the state for renovation, adaptive reuse and historic preservation work.

Tom Nemitz, who owns Cornerstone with John Dancer, told the Business Journal last week one reason for launching the new office was that the firm landed a couple of interesting projects there and sees a possibility for more down the road once it becomes better known in the region.

“We seem to be getting a lot more inquiries over on that side of the state for historic preservation work. We were the associate architect on a project for the First National Bank building in downtown Flint, which won a Governor’s Award for preservation,” he said.

“We were the preservation consultant and also the design consultant for the unit. It’s a mixed-use with residential above and commercial on the first couple of floors. That got us into the Flint market a little bit, and the developers had us do little odds and ends,” he said.

Cornerstone was also hired to design a fairly significant project in Durand, a Flint suburb. It was the lead architect for historically renovating the former Durand High School into an apartment building.

“So those two projects were fairly good-sized projects and kind of opened our eyes to a different world over there. While there are a lot of architects and some good preservation architects there, we have that adaptive reuse combined with the historic tax incentives that seem to blend well with a lot of things that are happening over there,” said Nemitz.

In addition, there are a lot of older structures in the metro Detroit market, as there are here, that someday may be restored, and it is restoration projects that have been the company’s specialty and have brought the firm statewide recognition.

Nemitz said Cornerstone partly chose St. Clair Shores as its new location in order to bring a former employee back into the fold. Jennifer Sutton is managing the office there; she worked at Cornerstone for several years before leaving to take a job at a large architectural firm in Detroit in order to be closer to her family. Then, about a year after she left here, the Detroit firm laid off quite a few employees, including Sutton.

“She was out of work and we wanted her back, but she didn’t want to move back to Grand Rapids. So we got to talking with her about the opportunities there for what we do, maybe a little bit more niche, and what Detroit had to offer, since we knew there was some activity for the renovation market,” said Nemitz.

“She put together a pretty interesting business plan that we liked, and we said let’s give it a shot and see how it works for the first year. Then we’ll just keep track of it and see how it goes.”

Nemitz said Sutton is a known entity in that market, which makes the firm’s entry into the region easier. The partners also felt now was a good time to go there because the cost to drop its business anchor in St. Clair Shores and let the market know that it had docked was pretty low due to the region’s current economic condition.

“So when things do come back, and they will, we will be poised to get some of that market share,” he said.

Cornerstone Architects is currently working on at least a dozen projects, with seven of those in the local market, including two major renovations for Locus Development. The firm is doing the historic preservation work for the Flat Iron Building on Monroe Center and is designing the renovation of the Peacock Building at the corner of Fulton Street and Jefferson Avenue.

The Traverse City office, which Dancer heads, has landed work for the city’s public schools system, the Interlochen Center for the Arts and Glen Lake Community Schools.

The new Cornerstone Architects office in St. Clair Shores opened Sept. 1. Nemitz said the firm’s emphasis right now is on marketing — letting developers and building owners know that they’re there.

“We see a lot of potential and I think there is some pent-up energy just because that market is so large. When we say Detroit metro, it kind of stretches all the way up to Saginaw, Bay City, and includes Flint. It goes at least to Brighton, and it seems to be expanding. So there is a pretty strong market,” he said.

“And there are a lot of communities in that market that are isolated bright spots: the Rochester and Rochester Hills area, Birmingham certainly, Northville and St. Clair Shores seem to have some things going, and Royal Oak. So there are some communities there that seem to be moving in the right direction. And Detroit has glimmers of hope every now and then, as well, and they’ve got a lot of buildings that we would love to get our hands on.”

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