Building outside of the box, with boxes

By Andy Balaskovitz

From historic preservation to urban gap infill, developer Harry Hepler transitions into a new kind of housing

Lansing developer Harry Hepler is coming off a figurative two- to three-year vacation.

Emerging, like others in his business, from a recession that caused a lending freeze from banks, Hepler has spent some time thinking about a new way of building homes. With lean times came ingenuity. Now Hepler has put together a vision that rethinks how we fill vacant urban spaces with homes.

In a break from the decided trend of mixed-use commercial/retail and residential developments, Hepler is bringing prefabricated apartment housing to Lansing. Small and compact, Hepler’s new modular pods start in a warehouse and will emerge in 400-to 500-square-foot units, stacked on top of each other four stories high. He’s laying the groundwork for the first Lansing complex: four buildings just north of the Prudden Tech Centre on May Street. Ultimately, he wants to load train cars on an adjacent railroad line and ship them across the country.

“When people first hear it, they don’t think quality,” the 50-year-old said in his May Street office earlier this month. “Probably because when you hear ‘modular’ … it sounds moveable and scary.

“This will provide a working model for anyone considering one of these,” he said.

Hepler’s also playing up to housing trends among the under-40 demographic.

“The Y Generation wants small, functional space,” he said. “They don’t want an enormous space.”

Hepler’s planned 200-unit Metro Flats complex would sit just north of his signature apartment complex, Motor Wheel Lofts along Saginaw Street. Hepler has turned the former Motor Wheel factory at Cedar and Saginaw streets into a residential and commercial space that also holds the Lansing Police Department’s North Precinct.

The prefabricated pods would be stacked on top of each other. They can be connected in such a way that multiple units can make up two- or three-bedroom apartments.

“It’s as simple as it sounds,” Hepler said. Hepler said he plans to apply for a special land use permit from the city soon so he can build residential on the industrially zoned property. He hopes to be building in 2015, assuming he receives city approval. He said rent will range from $550 to $650 a month for a one-bedroom unit and $950 to $1,150 for a two-bedroom.

The city is yet to see any specific plans, but there’s early interest.

“When you talk about new housing units coming in a central business district and central area, that’s always a great thing,” said Bob Johnson, Lansing’s director of planning and neighborhood development. “He’s propos ing a new approach. We’ll have to work with him on that … but I’m very much encouraged by the prospect.”

Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, has seen a few conceptual photos of Hepler’s container-housing idea.

“I thought it was super cool. I’m hoping we can encourage him to do it,” Trezise said. “It’s creative, imaginative and the appropriate spot for it. I believe in Harry Hepler as a developer — I believe he’s one of the high-quality developers we have.”

Mayor Virg Bernero’s chief of staff, Randy Hannan, said in an email last week that Bernero is “aware that Mr. Hepler has some ideas for new developments, but he hasn’t seen any of the details so he’s not in a position to comment on it at this time.”

Trend elsewhere

Prefabricating apartments in Michigan has its advantages. For one, the prefab pods allow Hepler to build apartments all year long, protected from the weather. Hepler is essentially his own client, since his company, H Inc., would build the pods. He calls the warehouse at Prudden his “incubator site,” predicting he’ll need more space if the idea catches on with developers elsewhere.

And outside of Lansing, it is. In Brooklyn, N.Y., a 32-story prefabricated apartment complex is being built that will be the world’s tallest. It’s made of 930 steel-framed boxes that will form 363 rental units, according to media reports. They’re going up elsewhere in the city as a quicker, more cost-efficient way of putting up new housing. In 2010, a 25-story dormitory was reportedly built in less than a year in Wolverhampton, England.

“Industrialized and modular construction is an idea whose time has come,” architect James Garrison told The New York Times in 2011. Garrison’s firm is also reportedly working on a prefabricated hotel project in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

Making his mark

Hepler grew up in the Lansing area, moving around the city and outlying communities and graduating high school from Grand Ledge. Between 18 and 26, Hepler sold real estate and also was a Federal Housing Administration loan officer. He then spent five years as a senior vice president at Old Kent Bank before launching his Blue Coyote project just off Michigan Avenue near the Stadium District.

The Blue Coyote brewery and restaurant shut down after five years in 2001 after parking rental costs grew unsustainable, Hepler said.

Hepler also redeveloped the Race Street Mill building in Old Town, which is office space for the Clark Hill law firm. Early on in that redevelopment, some had hoped the building would be a sorely needed anchor tenant restaurant along the river. Hepler said while a restaurant was always considered a possibility, so was office space.

“We fulfilled our obligations there, no problem,” he said.

Perhaps his biggest splash in Lansing is redeveloping the former Motor Wheel site by Saginaw and Larch Street.

But while Hepler’s career may be defined by adaptively reusing historical buildings in Motor Wheel and Race Mill, his next chapter is “gap developments,” or filling in vacant gaps on ur ban properties.

“For us, those are playing to our strengths,” Hepler said. “Lansing has that as a strength.”

Johnson, of Lansing’s Department of Planning and Neighborhood Development, said Hepler “pushes the boundaries” in terms of design and adaptively reusing buildings. “He has a flair for design, materials, coordination and the lifestyle that is marketable. You can look at his contemporary, cosmopolitan kind of design, his attention to detail with respect to the living space. … He really connects people with space in a profound way that other developers don’t necessarily do as well.”

Oak Park Reimagined

Though less concrete than his plan for new modular apartment housing near Prudden Tech Centre, developer Harry Hepler has a conceptual vision for what he says is an underutilized, 30-acre city park nearby.

Hepler has put together crude renderings that envisions selling the western portion of Oak Park for housing. The proceeds from such a sale — which would require voter approval — would go into improvements for the rest of the park, such as bathroom facilities and a soccer field.

The idea is to make the park more visible and accessible. Prudden Street would be extended south through the park, connecting Shiawassee and Saginaw streets.
Any such plan would need approval from the Lansing City Council and ultimately Lansing voters, who give authorization to sell dedicated park land.

“The park is woefully underutilized,” said Steve Purchase, vice president of Hepler’s H Urban Development. “It’s in a state of extensive disrepair.”

But Hepler is quick to call his idea just that — he suggests that he may not even be the developer of the portion that might be sold.

“At least it ought to be explored,” he said. “We’re saying we’d be interested in it.”
Lansing Parks Director Brett Kaschinske could not be reached for comment.

Hepler is focusing on this area as a way to bolster residential properties near downtown. Together with what he’s done at Prudden, Hepler’s developmental footprint could span upwards of 50 acres in this portion of the city about a mile northeast of downtown.

“There’s always a lot of emphasis on downtown,” Purchase said. “To support that you need healthy residential (nearby) as well. We view this area as connective tissue between downtown and the neighborhoods.”