$50m ‘bell tower’ project a lesson in the power of architecture

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the old detroit bell tower building

$50m ‘bell tower’ project a lesson in the power of architecture
IVY HUGHES
THURSDAY DECEMBER 15th, 2011

By winter 2012, the $50 million rehabilitation of a vacant, iconic Detroit building will be complete and a project — unique in scope and mission — will demonstrate how architecture can positively impact a turnaround city.

an aerial view of the tower under construction

The rehabilitation will transform the former Michigan Bell Telephone Company building, located at 882 Oakman Blvd. in downtown Detroit, into a mixed-use space that will provide permanent housing for 155 homeless men and women.

The project is the brainchild of the Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO), a Detroit-based nonprofit designed to empower vulnerable individuals, the homeless, young people and those with mental illness. In 2008, NSO approached architecture firm Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas about the project, which was developed to assist the neighborhood homeless population and provide a headquarters for NSO.

The 273,000 square foot building was built in 1929 for Western Electric, which had its headquarters in the building until 1958. Yellow Pages used the building until 1999. Focus: Hope, another Detroit nonprofit, sold the building to NSO for an undisclosed amount.

As a former warehouse, the building proved to be a design challenge for Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas, but the firm also knew the impact transforming such an iconic building could have on the neighborhood. Cleaning up and repurposing buildings that were once a bastion of commerce in a city suffering from a steep economic decline, can dramatically impact neighborhood morale, giving residents a sense of hope and prosperity.

“It was difficult because of the building’s footprint,” said Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas President Jim Pappas. “It doesn’t lend itself to housing the way long narrow buildings might where you can put units on both sides of the corridor.”

concept model for some of the new bell tower interior

Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas revisited its 2008 design, turning awkward spaces without natural light into an exercise facility, activity area, computer lab and a small chapel.

Along with housing and NSO offices, the building includes resident support programs for mental illness and addiction.

“This population often times deals with mental illness and addiction and it was established that in order to provide appropriate housing for many of these individuals, you’d need support functions right there for them,” Pappas said.

concept design for the one bedroom living spaces

Each apartment is approximately 450 square feet.

“They’re not huge but they’re very nice,” Pappas said. “Our goal was that when this was done there would be no difference in looking at a market-rate one-bedroom apartment in an urban setting and these units.””

Residents are expected to move in by the winter of 2012. Pappas said their rent will be subsidized through various grants and funding obtained for the project.

“It’s surprising to some people how many organizations there are that are making a difference in this city be it one program at a time or one project at a time,” Pappas said. “It’s kind of a cliché, but that’s how you change a city -one little building at a time.”

Pappas grew up in Detroit and although the original mission of Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas wasn’t nonprofit related, half of the firm’s work is with the nonprofit sector, a steep commitment for a for-profit business competing in a tough economy.

“The real satisfaction comes with these projects, where the real satisfaction isn’t that it’s just a building but that it’s making a difference in the community and hopefully making a difference in someone’s life,” Pappas said.

Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas President Jim Pappas

Pappas believes architects have a social responsibility to improve communities. Because architecture is a very visible profession, it can literally change the look of a city. By taking on nonprofit projects that help those in the city who are struggling financially or emotionally, Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas creates beautiful spaces for community-oriented organizations that might otherwise be confined to restrictive design.

In Detroit where abandoned buildings seem to dominate the skyline, the aesthetic of redevelopment is incredibly important. Plain, careless design will do nothing to improve the look of the city but the careful, meticulous redesign of buildings that once represented robust commerce, are symbolic of where the city and its residents are going.

Though the 50-50 split between nonprofit and private sector clients wasn’t in the firm’s original plan, the firm has gradually expanded its nonprofit portfolio.

Fusco, Shaffer & Pappas designed the expansion of Angela Hospice in Livonia; a renovation of Mary Wood Nursing Care Center in Livonia; and Oakland Place, a project funded by the Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.

concept design of bell tower exterior canopies

Though Pappas said the ‘Bell Tower’ is a dream project, nonprofit work can take more time and more financial wrangling than for-profit endeavors. The ‘Bell Tower’ project has been in the works since 2008 and includes 10 different funding sources.

Commenting on the challenges of launching an initiative of this scope and importance to the city, Pappas said… “At the end of the day you have 15 people here that have to get a paycheck every two weeks and you can’t lose sight of that. If you do, you’re not going to be a help to anyone.”

The firm is further using its position as a Detroit change agent to beautify the streetscape. Streetscape improvements statewide have achieved boosts in both the visibility and attractiveness of many Michigan cities. By cleaning up trash, engaging formally-absent property owners, putting up public art projects and painting and redesigning abandoned buildings, these projects entice visitors to the city.

The firm is working with NSO, the City of Detroit, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, local artists and other area architects and builders to design the Oakman Boulevard streetscape, a project that will enhance the redevelopment work that’s been done in that region.

It is clear that Pappas has a dream for Detroit and his position as a successful architect offers an opportunity to respond to a bigger need. “I love it here,” Pappas said. “There has been so many changes to the city. It’s slowed because of the economy but it’s still happening. There are so many people making a difference.”

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