On principle, it’s hard not to like the idea of historic rehab and renovation as a development scheme.
The approach takes a building that was once important but is now neglected and rejiggers it for a new use, while conserving resources, recycling materials and preserving the unique architectural and cultural artifacts that makes it worth saving.
But this method, often used in the cramped urban core of cities to minimize the footprint of new developments, is no slam dunk.
Local developers who specialize in affordable housing or mixed-use projects that pair housing and retail through historic renovation point to three main stumbling blocks for any potential project: complicated financing requirements, unique construction challenges and a need for local support and cooperation to help raise money and get through the red tape.
Most important is the local support, they said.
“The real challenge is can you get the capital to do the project and is there the political will to assist with that?” Madison developer Gary Gorman said.

“There’s always a battlefield, a minefield you have to step through, from title issues to bankruptcy issues, with these old buildings,” said Matt Meier, senior project development manager for The Alexander Co., another Madison developer known for urban preservation projects.

When it does work
But when urban renovation does work, it can be a triple win, as when the project provides affordable housing near jobs in a city’s downtown.
“If you can live, work and recreate within walking distance, that makes all kinds of sense,” Gorman said. “There’s no greener building than renovating an existing building. “You’re not tearing it down and putting materials in a dump and you’re not using (as much) material to create a new structure. And the less tangible part of it is, it honors the people that came before us.”
Gorman’s historic renovation projects include Quisling Terrace, a former medical clinic providing mixed-income apartments since 2000 in Downtown Madison, and Fairbanks Flats Rowhomes, built in 1917 in Beloit as the city’s first segregated workforce housing. Gorman refurbished it, creating 16 rent-to-own townhomes for lower-income residents, from an uninhabitable condition last year.
Gorman’s projects are in keeping with the industry imperative that¬† historically renovated buildings aren’t meant to be museums – they need to be economically viable, and ideally serve as catalysts for more development, advocates said.

“In so many of these locations, the historic rehabilitation removes blight and begins the process of renewal, so there’s a lot more benefit than just the historic buildings themselves,” said Dave Vos of The Alexander Co., whose projects include the renovation of a rundown paper mill in Appleton.

The $15.5 million Fox River Mills project, done in the late 1980s, was credited with helping to bring hundreds of people to that city’s downtown. It also was one of the first mixed-income projects in the state, including both subsidized and market-rate units to attract people making a wide range of salaries. The experiment was a success, said Vos, development project manager for Alexander.

“People didn’t think someone earning a six-figure salary could live next door to someone earning $25,000 or $30,000 a year,” he said. “We found that when you gave people a nice quality place to live, their behavior reflected it and you couldn’t tell the difference. So it was an eye opener for a lot of people.”

Exploratory process
But reclaiming an old building’s lost promise while making it affordable and economically viable is a hat trick that eludes many potential projects.
And one of the first challenges for any rehab team is determining whether the job can physically be done. Buildings proposed for historic rehab are old by definition, and many have been boarded up and deteriorating for years by the time a project starts.
That means it’s critical to get an agreement from the building owner for some exploratory pass-throughs of the property – and they aren’t always the gentlest of expeditions.

“You have to get dirty,” said Joe Alexander, president of The Alexander Co. “We have architects out crawling around in sub-basements that carry sledgehammers with them to bust open walls to look for structural issues or environmental issues. Dave Vos has fallen through any number of floors, and got attacked by a turkey vulture.”
“And a fox,” Vos noted.

Once a project begins, there is a delicate balancing act between the reconstruction process and the preservation priorities that must be maintained to make sure the project qualifies for federal historic tax credits.
For example, federal rules prohibit any work that makes changes outside the “building envelope,” or its shell. Rehabbers can repair windows and replace mortar between bricks, but repairs must replicate the style of the original building, and no walls can be knocked down to make needed changes inside.
National Park Seminary project
So when The Alexander Co. had to remove decades of debris from a building with sloping floors and a collapsed roof in a development known as National Park Seminary outside Washington, D.C., the repair plan required elaborate methods to get the work done safely.

“We had to brace the wall and remove the roof,” Vos said. “Then we dropped in men hanging from one crane and dropped in a Dumpster hanging from another crane. So they’re tied to their crane, cutting apart floors and putting them in the Dumpster.”

During the same development, which had been abandoned by the Army decades earlier, the company had to deal with extensive water damage as part of the $100 million project, which began in 2004 and was mostly finished last year by Alexander.
Many of the wrecked, wood-frame buildings, which were in worse shape than any project undertaken by The Alexander Co. in the past 25 years, had an almost otherworldly quality inside, Joe Alexander said.

“When the Army moved out, they left all the steam pipes on, and eventually all the pipes exploded,” he said. “So there were stalagmites growing up from the floors all covered in ice.”

Other problems that often come up during historic renovations include fire damage; destroyed heating and ventilation systems; broken windows; crumbling brick; the presence of asbestos and lead in walls, paint and ceiling tiles; and a host of other problems, Alexander and Gorman said.
The key is never thinking you’ve seen it all.
“We found an extra elevator shaft in a building one time that wasn’t supposed to be there,” Gorman recalled. “We’ve found PCBs, which is a toxic substance, and then you have to call in the guys with the hazmat astronaut suits.”
“It goes on and on,” he added. “The real surprise in a historic rehab would be if you had no surprises.”