May 23 2012 12:00 AM

Old Town's Walker Building goes from green to serene


The recent life of Old Town’s historic Walker Building has been a lot like the Hulk’s, only in reverse. When it was big and green, nobody noticed it. Now that it’s settled down and dressed in earth tones, it’s turning heads.

The two-year, $771,000 project to convert the 8,000-square-foot, uh, hulk, into a classic Old Town layer cake — commercial space on the bottom, apartments on top —  is finished.

Built in 1909, the Walker Building served most of its life as Beeman’s Grocery, but is known to most locals as the Dollar Deal, boldly painted the color of money. The tiled, grimy hall upstairs was home to sweaty dance lessons and union meetings. For years, the building seemed to squat at the corner of Grand River and Washington avenues and bellow: Old Town stop here! Puny boutiques go away!

Developer Gene Townsend, who lives a couple of blocks away, eyeballed the property for years. He made his move when the Dollar Deal went defunct in 2009. Since 1990, the building has been owned by Sam Saboury, who runs a copy shop in East Lansing’s Trowbridge Plaza.

With Old Town’s historic center nearly full of new and old businesses, Brittney Hoszkiw, former director of the Old Town Commercial Association, saw a chance to jump across North Washington to the west and revive a neglected cluster of older buildings across from a longtime anchor business, Elderly Instruments.

At an open house showing off the newly rehabbed Walker Building, Saboury admitted he was reluctant to take a plunge as recently as two years ago.

“Old Town has been changing a lot in the past 10 years,” Saboury said. “Britney was a big encouragement for me to do something. She introduced me to Gene.”

Townsend wrote up a one-page budget, with income projections a bank would pay attention to. 

The city of Lansing agreed to furnish $142,000 for lead and asbestos cleanup. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority, or MSHDA, agreed to match that with another $142,000. The city and state contributions both came from 2010 federal stimulus money. A nonprofit partner, the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition, joined the team to qualify the project for the state money, which would go toward converting the second floor into low-income housing.

“This fits our mission,” Coalition director Katherine Draper said. “We’d like to do more of this kind of thing.” The five apartments, at $590 a month including utilities, are already taken.

To develop the commercial space below, Saboury put up $54,000 of his own money, but it wasn’t nearly enough. With the other pieces in place, Townsend connected Saboury with John Morris, a vice president of Dart Bank. 

Dart agreed to lend Saboury $330,000, “just enough to cobble together a construction budget,” Townsend said. The first floor is now home to Redhead Design Studio.

Then the fun began. Townsend pinched the pennies hard, according to architect Liz Harrow, who designed the apartments.

“He held it to budget,” Harrow said. “I had a lot of stuff on paper, and when I look back I don’t even recognize it.”

Townsend hammered at the basics. Heavy exterior wall insulation and an Energy Star furnace and water heater will keep Saboury’s utilities low, while exposed interior brick and original wood floors give the apartments an Old Town feel.

Harrow had fun fitting five apartments into a funky L-shaped space. Each of the apartments has a different layout and overall feel, but they all have great views and few frills. Instead of granite countertops, the team used durable Corian. To fit a code-required window onto one bedroom, Harrow used an old tenement trick: a light well sunk into the roof. 

Despite the penny pinching, an unforeseen problem threatened to bust the budget. The roof was only 5 years old, but it was leaking.

“After every rain, we’d spray paint the leaks on the floor, then go up and find them,” Townsend said.

An unforeseen solution came along when the city’s asbestos and lead cleanup bill on the project rose from $140,000 to $190,000. Townsend leveraged this setback by asking MSHDA to match the higher figure, not the original $140,000. The extra 50 grand paid for a heavy-duty roof, literally capping the whole project, with money left over for floor patching, sump pumps in the basement and “knobs on the cabinets,” according to Townsend.

Saboury was so delighted with the Walker Building project he bought the building two doors down, Demilio’s Dance Studio, and plans to convert it to apartments.

At the open house, Harrow shoved aside a plate of hummus (catered by Saboury’s friend, Chuck Raad, owner of Woody’s Oasis) and started scribbling out some floor plans. 

“The next time I do an apartment in Old Town, I’ll have more transoms, so the hall gets natural light,” she enthused. “I’m ready.”

Townsend quietly stood by, maintaining the poker face that stared down the Hulk. “I was pretty certain that once this corner was fixed up, those properties going down Washington would get used,” he said.