Saturday, November 03, 2012

Rooms with a view

The highlight of Thursday's trip into Des Moines was a chance to tour just before completion the Crane Building Artist Lofts, an innovative recycling project for a vintage building at 1440 Walnut in the south-of-Gateway-Park neighborhood, downtown.

 No, the Hotel Charitone apartments are not going to look like the Crane lofts --- although the architect (Kirk Blunck) and the contractor (Koester Construction) are the same. The most obvious similarity between the two projects, other than a generally light and contemporary feel for the interiors, is likely to be the fire escape that will climb the Charitone's north wall.

We actually took to the fire escape to get from one floor to another at the lofts Thursday --- and that's the view northeast at the top from the outside stair, then here, at left, through a living room window in one of the apartments.

The view certainly is one of the selling points for the apartments, and there are 36 of them, roughly 75 percent pre-leased. To live here, tenants must be "regularly engaged in an artistic discipline as a career or as a significant commitment in their life, bringing in all or a portion of their income from this discipline." All but six of the units have income restrictions. All are ADA adaptable.

Koester's deadline for completing the project is two weeks away, and so there was a lot of activity inside as workers finished public areas of the complex and cleaners worked in finished apartments. Tenants are expected to start moving in after Dec. 1.

Before the building was purchased by a Minnesota developer, LWO Properties of St. Paul, it was a wreck. Once upon a time, the Crane Co. had manufactured, displayed, warehoused and distributed toilets here. But the building had been vacant for years, occupied principally by pigeons. Built in 1916, there are exterior similarities to the 1923 Charitone.

Inside, vast mushroom-shaped cast-concrete columns support the concrete floors of the various level --- and are featured in apartments and public areas. But elaborate detail is for the most part visible only near the entrance, where a vintage stair rises to the second floor and offices and show rooms once were located. Public areas at the north end of the second floor also originally contained offices, but now will contain a soundproof music room, pottery/paint room, dance room, lounge and media center. Hanging rails have been installed in all of the public areas and hallways, allowing for the display of artwork throughout. There is parking for all tenants, described as a "tight squeeze," in a garage to the east of the building, topped by a patio with rubber pavers and "green" inserts and adaptable for display of sculpted pieces.

The lofts, all interesting spaces, will seem sparse to people accustomed to finished walls, ceilings and floors (flooring throughout is the original concrete, which has been sealed but left otherwise untreated). Some of this is intended to conserve the integrity of the building and some is related to budget restrictions within a project with an estimated total cost of $8 million. Lighting is fluorescent. Bedroom doors slide rather than swing --- and do not latch.

Both the city of Des Moines and the Iowa Housing Finance Authority have incentive investments in the project, part of an effort to bring more affordable housing to downtown Des Moines.

Vintage metal-clad fire doors (which now lead nowhere) have been left where installed originally, adding interest to some of the units.

The neighborhood itself, once considered irredeemably undesirable, has changed substantially, too. A new fire station and homeless shelter have been constructed nearby and the new and popular Exile Brewing Co. is located to the immediate west. You can see sculptor James Ellwanger's crown, recently installed on the Exile building, through a still-dusty window here. That's the familiar Meredith tower to the right. The amazing Gateway Park area is just to the north. There also are a variety of other redeveloped, waiting-to-be-developed and vintage housing opportunities in the general western Gateway area.

So if you're an artist --- space still is available. Property manager Angela Heldt recently told The Register that tenants so far include an opera singer, painters, photographers, jewelry designers, a graphic artist and more --- but a financial professional who claimed to be a "money artist" had been spurned. One-bedroom units rent from $460-$650 and two-bedrooms, $555 to $950. At least four of the first-floor lofts --- where ceilings are higher, have lofts within lofts for sleeping.

And oh, by the way, here's that fire escape. Look for something similar to this before long on the northeast corner of the Charitone.

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