Exchange Place, at Market and Douglas, is an absolute mess. So is the Bitting Building, across the street.
But that’s a good thing.
Work on the conversion of two long-vacant office buildings into apartments – plus the addition of a new apartment building and a radical, partly automated new parking garage – is underway.
The $66 million project, one of the biggest downtown in decades, is six months old and is still in a phase where it’s as much demolition as construction. When finished, the complex will have 240 apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space and a parking garage.
The project runs along Douglas about the length of a city block. It will run from just west of Broadway to just west of Market Street, as well as up Market Street.
The general contractor for the project is Key Construction of Wichita. Company officials expect to have Bitting done by the summer and the rest of the project completed by January 2017.
It will be a dramatic new lease on life for two prominent vacant office buildings. Exchange Place – built 100 years ago and expanded in 1955 – has been vacant since 1998 and was extensively vandalized by copper thieves several years ago. Until the 1970s, it was the richly decorated headquarters of Fourth National Bank, which was absorbed by Bank of America in the 1990s.
The Bitting Building, built in 1911 and raised to its present height in 1919, has been empty since 2002.
Two smaller buildings, the Michigan Building and the Lerners Building, to the east of Exchange Place, have already been torn down.
Minnesota-based developers Michael Elzufon and David Lundberg conceived the project and arranged the complex financing package that includes a federal loan guarantee and city of Wichita tax increment financing. But the pair ran into financial trouble, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development insisted on bringing in a more experienced and fully capitalized partner.
John McWilliams, a developer based in the Phoenix area, eventually took over the project, and the Minnesota developers have no part in it. But the size and scope of the project is frozen to the plan that Elzufon and Lundberg designed under the federal loan guarantees.
Elzufon and Lundberg now face 61 counts of fraud brought by the Kansas Securities Commissioner in February. The commissioner alleges that the two sold unregistered securities and failed to supply required information to the investors, who lost $3.5 million.
Although the two buildings’ systems and fixtures are obsolete, damaged or missing, their structure remains solid. Exchange Place, for instance, has foot-thick concrete floors.
Right now, there are 110 workers on site. That will surge up to 200 workers next year as Key enters the final stages of finish work on the apartments, putting in the trim and adding paint.
Walking through the buildings with Dave Wells, Key Construction’s president, and several of the project’s managers shows the scale of the effort.
“We start by demo-ing floor by floor, taking out all the stuff that’s not going to stay, … getting it back down to bare bones,” said Larry Bodley, superintendent for the job. “After that, we go back in, shore up any structural issues that we find, and we start laying out for the new floor that’s going to be there.”
The lower floors are cleaned out, and on a few of them workers have framed in the walls of the apartments.
But the upper floors remain full of debris as the crews work their way up. Workmen with torches are still cutting up massive steel boilers and air handlers. Recently, they dismantled a nine-story brick elevator shaft, dropping the bricks down the shaft onto a metal ramp at the bottom.
They have to be careful with the some of the buildings’ architectural features, such as the pink marble on the inside and outside of Exchange Place. These features must be maintained as part of the historic preservation plan needed to keep the $17 million in historic tax credits used to fund part of the package.
One of the challenges is drilling about 3,000 holes through the concrete floors so that they line up exactly for the plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems that don’t now exist in the building.
Despite what some people might guess, restoring an existing building is far more expensive than building new, Wells said.
Removing old materials, adding systems the building wasn’t designed for and repairing historic elements add serious cost, he said. He estimated construction cost at $112,500 per unit, while the nearby new construction at the Flats 324 is closer to $75,000 per unit.
Aside from the two rehabilitated buildings, Key will build a row of apartments six stories high along Douglas between Exchange Place and the Kress Building. Behind it will be the strangest parking garage in Wichita.
Wells said the semi-automated parking deck, called a “No-Post” system, is needed because of the small size of the space for the number of slots required.
What the project’s designers ultimately came up with is a six-story parking garage, with 12-foot ceilings. In each space is a steel plate and four hoists. A valet will drive a car onto the plates, then push a button, and the car will be lifted six feet into the air, leaving enough space for a car to be parked beneath it.
It will contain spaces for the tenants, but also 68 spaces for the public.
“It’s an inefficient site,” Wells said. “To get 300 cars in, you’d have to build a parking garage 12 stories high. We’re whacking that in half.”