Taking a brisk winter stroll through the empty shell of Oliver Towers in downtown Lansing with general contractor Howard Olsen is like touring a wine cellar with Bacchus himself.
Olsen, 76, is a connoisseur of concrete with almost 60 years in the construction business under his belt. He’s been around so long, he got his start working on a Roman aqueduct. Really.
For now, concrete is about all that’s left inside Oliver Towers.
“But it’s solid,” Olsen said. “A split form job.” Vintage: 1968 A.D.
After nearly 20 vacant years and a dozen false starts and failed plans, the eight-story former senior apartment complex at the corner of Ionia Street and Capitol Avenue is finally getting a full-on, $14 million “Mad Men” style makeover, with 88 chic one-bedroom apartments and eight with two bedrooms, scheduled to be ready by the end of this year.
Lit by temporary shop lights, the concrete panels look as creamy as Chardonnay now that Olsen’s team has scoured off the blistering plaster and accumulated mold of 20 years.
The panels at Oliver Towers are an impressive 3 to 6 inches thick, but Olsen has seen thicker. He was a general contractor on the 72-story Water Tower Place, the tallest all-concrete building in Chicago.
“We brought in Japanese mining equipment to dig the trench,” he said. His team lined the underground parking structure with concrete 4 feet thick.
Olsen huddled with project superintendent Jerry Risch and his team from Lansing’s Wieland Construction last week to make sure work was on track.
The freezing temperatures at Oliver Towers were no big deal for Olsen. He knows what it feels like to be dropped by a crane to the bottom of a 90-foot-deep hole to inspect a caisson.
“The sky was a tiny dot and there was nothing holding the clay walls back,” he said.
He has even worked for Disney and lived to tell the tale. In the 1970s, he helped build two pavilions at Epcot Center.
At 20, Olsen was already an assistant construction superintendent, specializing in concrete, when he quit the job to go to college, angering his superiors.
“If I didn’t do it then, I figured I never would,” he said.
But he didn’t really quit. To complete a project for a world literature class, he could have read a book — but no. He built a scale replica of a Roman aqueduct. He sculpted a clay mold and filled it with plaster reinforced by coat hangers. “I added vermiculite around the edges to make it look old,” he said.
When the Eyde Co. called Olsen in 2015, he had just spent over six years renovating the Landmark, a massive condo and hotel complex tucked into the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.
Olsen had been retired for about a minute when the Eydes asked Olsen to help run its biggest project ever, the former Owens Corning Fiberglas headquarters in Toledo. The landmark 28-story mid-century glass tower is nearly finished.
Oliver Towers may seem like a mere bagatelle in comparison, but it has its own challenges. The cleanup, for one, was extensive and nasty. In the course of nearly 20 winters, every pipe that could break did so. The mold cleanup required protective gear.
Oliver Towers was built in 1968 as a subsidized senior apartment block for seniors. It was abandoned in 2000, after a fire gutted the first floor and damaged the fire and elevator systems. A frustrating series of plans to re-use the building came and went, from a new City Hall to high-income townhouses to a new downtown library to a homeless shelter.
The Eyde Co. bought the property in 2015, sensing a wave of new housing and other developments in downtown Lansing. The sale required approval from the Lansing Housing Commission and the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.
The city rezoned the property for mixed-use and multi-family housing. The Eyde Co. agreed to redevelop and reuse the building, a key term of the sale.
One of the most significant things about the tower is that there’s nothing really significant about it. It’s not a historic landmark crying to be re-purposed, like the Art Deco Knapp’s Centre, which the Eyde Co. renovated and occupied in 2012. It’s just a part of the urban fabric that would be a shame to waste.
“It shows the strength of downtown, that private investment is willing to come into the community and take the risk,” Eyde Co. general counsel Mark Clouse said. There were no historic credits, but the city approved a Brownfield tax credit and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. approved a $2.4 million low-interest loan.
All big developments are a gamble, but Oliver Towers is looking less so with every passing week. Clouse cited Pat Gillespie’s rollout last summer of another major downtown development, with a Meijer-owned boutique grocery store, the prospect of a downtown performing arts center, and even the planned switch from one-way to two-way traffic on Capitol Avenue as all contributing to a spiraling downtown synergy.
“A lot of positive things have fallen into place,” Clouse said.
The renovation team is keeping the apartments about the same size as the old senior units — 400 to 500 square feet. Clouse hopes the compact units will appeal to a variety of prospective tenants, from empty nesters to students to legislators and other state workers who spend part of their time in Lansing.
“We’re trying to appreciate the 1960s architecture,” Clouse said. “There’s no sense making this building something it wasn’t.”
After consulting with an Italian firm that specializes in making tiny old spaces feel big, an architectural team from Grand Rapids is using a variety of tricks to make the small units feel more spacious, such as open shelves between rooms and lively (but not too lively) colors.
“The architects have done a great job maximizing these spaces,” Olsen said.
On the outside, the tower’s expansive courtyard will get a fresh look. The overgrown plaza will be cleaned up so residents can bask in the shade of a stately row of sycamores along Ionia Street.
“They wanted to take them down and I told them, ‘No way,’ Olsen said.
The tower’s exterior stone panels, while “pretty,” were full of asbestos, Olsen said. They’ll be replaced by his favorite material — vintage 2019 concrete siding, stained to simulate wood grain as an accent.
“It’s going to be real slick,” Olsen said.