‘Autophagy’ for the Built Environment

‘Autophagy’ for the Built Environment

Suburban retrofit is ‘autophagy’ of the built environment


AUG. 23, 2022
Public Square, A CNU Journal

Conventional suburbs are cities that have grown obese. We need processes for reusing their worn-out parts and creating something of higher value.

My summer reading sometimes leads to connecting diverse topics with my area of professional focus—the built environment. I recently read a book on fasting that introduced me to the body’s recycling process called “autophagy,” and I thought about suburban retrofit. I don’t know that anyone else would make this analogy, but I think it’s apt.

Autophagy means “self-eating,” which sounds macabre, but is the body’s vital process of reusing old, worn-out cellular parts. Recycling often produces goods of lesser or similar value—think of recycled paper—but autophagy takes our body’s junk and makes it highly valuable, using damaged cell parts for energy and building blocks for new growth. In 2016, Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in medicine for work in this area.

Autophagy helps us to survive in times of extreme stress—such as starvation—but it also is important for routine health maintenance. If this process breaks down, illness such as cancer may result.

Similarly, retrofit is critical to the long-term health of suburbs. It’s the process of taking low-value elements of the suburban environment—say a defunct mall or out-of-date shopping center—and building, say, a mixed-use urban center, affordable housing, a health district, or a park.

June Williamson, coauthor of Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia, notes that public health and the built environment are intertwined. Suburban retrofit is linked to improving public health and promoting longevity. Projects highlighted in the book “encourage everyday physical activity; incorporate tenets of biophilia; reduce social isolation with communal gathering spaces; improve safety from various risks; mitigate ill effects from air, soil, and water pollution; increase access to healthy foods and preventative health care, and reduce the stresses of income and resource inequality,” she told Public Square.

A short history of conventional suburban development (CSD) is warranted. CSD makes up most of new development that has occurred since 1950s. Due to zoning regulations and development practices, different uses and housing types are separated from one another in a low-density pattern. Rather than a tight network of streets that is found in almost all cities and towns prior to 1950, CSD takes a dendritic (“tree-like”) form with large blocks and isolated subdivisions, where local streets lead to collectors, then to arterials. The latter thoroughfares gather all the traffic, and that’s where the commercial uses locate. CSD now makes up about 90 percent, give or take, of our metropolitan regions by area. 

Due to the separated, low-density form, CSD has a lot of underutilized, low-value land. This is especially true when commercial properties like malls and office parks decline economically. 

US suburban environments, especially if they have been around for more than three decades, are riddled with such sites. When dead and dying pieces of the built environment achieve a critical mass, they threaten to bring down the value of everything around them. That is why it is important that retrofit occur in suburbs, once they get past their first generation—30 years—of growth.

The question is, what kind of retrofit will take place? Will it be “recycling,” or “upcycling?” The latter is the process, according to Wikipedia, of creating something of greater value. Here’s a couple of examples of upcycling in a suburban environment:

Grow Desoto Market Place. Developer Monte Anderson purchased the The Brookhollow Shopping Center in Desoto, Texas, a standard neighborhood strip mall with 50,000 square feet in a majority Black suburb, in 2016. “Rather than knock the building down and start from scratch, he worked from the inside out, adaptively reusing the building in a way that would provide uses to foster walkability and serve as a hub for the community to gather,” according to a report by Christopher Kuschel for CNU. Anderson filled the reclaimed mall with small local vendors, added residential units to a strip of land at the edge of the site, and reclaimed part of the parking lot for food trucks and vendors. 

Downtown Westminster. The Westminster Mall in Westminster, Colorado, declined in the early 2000s after operating for 40 years. The city has led a public-private partnership to redevelop the site into a downtown that the Denver suburb never had. It has been rapidly developing, even during the pandemic, with apartments, entertainment (brewpub, bowling), retail, hotel, restaurants, medical offices, and more. The new urban plan has established a tight network of streets and public spaces that allow far more value to be created than ever existed in the heyday of the mall. 


The potential for suburban upcycling is tremendous. A recent analysis, reported in Public Square, of the Boston region showed that 125,000 housing unit could be built by retrofitting just 10 percent of strip malls. “Retail strip redevelopment … allows communities to accommodate new growth without the loss of the valuable open space required for new subdivisions or greenfield multifamily development,” notes the report.

We need mechanisms to reuse these sites in the suburbs, much like our bodies creatively reuse broken down parts of cells. Imagine if our bodies didn’t do this—if we kept adding new cell parts as we accumulated those that are broken. We would all quickly become obese and grotesque. 

That’s kind of what has been happening in the suburbs, which can be thought of as cities that suffer from obesity. We need codes and development practices that constantly reuse the failing parts of the suburban environment as places of higher value. With these mechanisms in place, we could incrementally transform sprawl.

Squirrel News | Cities owned by locals

Squirrel News | Cities owned by locals

Squirrel News | Cities owned by locals

Jonathan Widder

March 21, 2022

Squirrel News 

Social inequality is one of the major problems of our times. And housing is one of the areas where you can feel that immediately. In a movement called incremental development, people who would usually not be able to afford it and sometimes not even think about it help each other aquire residential property, often very successfully. In this episode, we spoke with Mike Keen, a sociology professor who is part of the movement in South Bend, Indiana, and Mary Hall, a journalist who covered the approach.

Hosts: Ed Crasnick, Jonathan Widder. Editing: Nina Bohlmann.

Oak Cliff Connections

Oak Cliff Connections

Oak Cliff Connections

By Rebecca Brooke & Rachel Stone

May 20, 2022
Oak Cliff Connections

The Advocate

If you like those PBS shows where a sophisticated British woman walks around and talks to you about the Cotswolds or the Roman Empire, then you will love Rebecca Brooke.

“I am a lover of community and of history, and I thought, ‘What a better place to explore than my own backyard of Oak Cliff,” Brooke says in the intro to her online show, Oak Cliff Connections.

The actress and filmmaker, who lives in Beckley Club Estates, created the show over about a year, starting pre-production in June 2021. The first episode launched May 20.

It runs a little over 26 minutes with an introduction to Oak Cliff that touches on our neighborhood’s beauty, history, culture and climate. The quality of the production could put most visitors bureaus to shame, and it has a hyperlocal edge that cuts a little deeper.

“If you want to meet the real Oak Cliff, you can’t accept the beauty without acknowledging the pain,” she says in the show.

With a change of tone around the 5-minute mark, Brooke dips into topics of racism and gentrification.

“When you enjoy the amenities of a fun new development, you need to know that while that was growth for some, it was most likely loss for others,” she says.

After a history lesson about Hord’s Ridge, Thomas L. Marsalis and the historic Oak Cliff Cemetery, Brooke gets into the expected format of profiling people, places and businesses.

At about the 14-minute mark, she visits Tyler Station, where she has an Oak Cliff Brewing Co. beer and interviews the owners of Trade Oak Cliff.

Brooke has lived in Oak Cliff for seven years and has two kids. The episode was shot in October and November 2021, and she did editing and post-production from then until May, as she had time as a stay-at-home parent.

The Tyler, Texas, native says she hopes to have the next episode finished by the end of summer.

Micro Homes for Shopping Center

Micro Homes for Shopping Center

Micro homes wanted for South Polk shopping center to create walkable urban village

By Rachel Stone

April 6, 2022
Advocate | Oak Cliff

Picture an urban village with homes, a grocery store, restaurants and a bank in South Oak Cliff.

That’s the vision Monte Anderson has for the Golden Triangle Shopping Center at 3939 S. Polk St.

Anderson wants to build 12 one-story “micro homes” in the shopping center’s parking lot.

“We’re taking an under-used, over-parked shopping center and putting in small units,” Anderson says. “It creates the urban form so that it feels like an urban village.”

A zoning-change application requests that the shopping center’s RR zoning, regional retail, be changed to MU1, walkable mixed-use.

The homes would have retro modern architecture to match the existing buildings. Each one would comprise about 500 square feet. They could even be divided into roommate pods of 200 and 300 square feet, each with its own a bathroom, Anderson says.

The apartments would be for rent at market rate, but Anderson’s company does accept housing vouchers.

The shopping center on South Polk is one of several in southern Dallas County that Anderson has purchased or is buying with similar goals.

He expects to close on Wheatland Plaza shopping center in Duncanville this week.

That’s where he’s planning to build two-story apartments or condos at the center of the existing development.

He’s also working on similar projects in Lancaster and DeSoto.

“These shopping centers have got to be reimagined,” says Anderson, who is known for his redevelopment of the Belmont Hotel and Tyler Station.

In suburban areas, it’s not financially feasible to tear them down, he says. And demolition just puts them in the landfill anyway.

Retailers like Dollar General, which has a lease in Wheatland Plaza, and Family Dollar, which has one on South Polk, can coexist with trendy restaurants and neighborhood services, he says.

But he also wants to downsize retail spaces. Along with shops and services like dry cleaning, there could be small graphic-design firms, podcast booths and studios that Tik-Tok influencers could rent, for example.

Adding a residential component livens them up with full-time residents to support those businesses.

As the zoning-change application states: “The owner wishes to leverage this housing to support high-quality walkable, mixed-use development, consistent with the goals enumerated in the City of Dallas Economic Policy …”  

Beckley Settlement, a two-story commercial building Anderson redeveloped on South Beckley in 2020, is fully leased with 32 tenants.

“And they’re all from the neighborhood,” he says.

That’s also part of his vision, that whatever commercial tenants are a fit for the shopping centers, they will be locally owned businesses, with an emphasis on upstarts.

In Duncanville, Anderson also own Main Station and the quaint retail strip near it, and he says people always ask why they don’t have “the pie place,” Emporium Pies, in their town.

“I tell them, the pie place don’t belong here. It belongs in Bishop Arts,” he says. “We need to have our own pie thing down here. You don’t want to go steal from other places. It doesn’t work anyway.”

Here are more architectural renderings of the plan for 3939 S. Polk.

Placemaking x City of Raleigh

Placemaking x City of Raleigh

Placemaking x City of Raleigh

Kady Yellow

director of placemaking

Firstly, thank you to the City of Raleigh and its residents for hosting me this past week. It was a pleasure to present to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, Raleigh Urban Design Center, your city planners, and Sarah Powers of Raleigh Arts. Secondly, congrats on this exciting time as you search for the perfect person to direct placemaking.

The day started with drip-coffee with built-environment specialist, fellow parking lot placemaker, and founder of Raleigh Urban Rangers Tina Govan. We discussed the importance of ’soft boundaries’ and ambiguity when approaching the design and use of shared public spaces and no trees in parks unless you want ‘frying pan places’.

We then went to lunch with digital placemaker Marie Schacht who talks on “social stitching”, “loves adventures that take time” and implements a people-centric hiring process insisting on no resumes. We talked about “helping locals strengthen their neighborhoods through small-scale real estate projects” via the work of Monte Anderson.

We were then joined by fellow New York Stater and Arts-Administrator Sarah Powers, Feng Shui focused neighbor Nicole, and Kathleen Louis to tour Greg Hatem’s Black Main Street and his unique approach to pandemic-downtowns.

If you’re interested in any of these topics:


Oak Cliff/South Dallas     214-506-0480      https://oakcliffbrewing.com/

The Mournful Heart of It’s a Wonderful Life

The Mournful Heart of It’s a Wonderful Life

The Mournful Heart of It’s a Wonderful Life

By Megan Garber

Friday, December 24, 2021
The Atlantic

The holiday classic is now 75 years old, and a timely exploration of what happens when all that you’ve relied on fades away.

It’s a Wonderful Life is an odd candidate for the “heartwarming Christmas classic” category. The film’s plot pivots around its main character’s consideration of suicide. And the story of George Bailey, a family man beset by troubles both financial and existential, does not get notably Christmas-y until its final seconds. “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it,” the director, Frank Capra, would later say. “I just liked the idea.”

The film’s current popularity is in some ways accidental: It met mixed reviews when it premiered in 1946 and flopped at the box office. It languished for decades until 1974, when what was likely a clerical oversight changed its fate: The film’s 28-year copyright period had come to an end because the studio that owned it failed to refile for a second term. It’s a Wonderful Life entered the public domain, and TV networks, availing themselves of its new royalty-free status, began airing it. Repeatedly. And eventually, as sometimes happens, the repetition led to love.

It’s a Wonderful Life is 75 years old this year, now beloved both because and in spite of the fact that it is about a man convinced by an affable angel that the world is better because he is in it. I’d remembered the film as a giddy blend of styles and characters: comedy, tragedy, magical realism, a celestial being whose angel-rank is Second Class and whose name is Clarence Odbody. I’d understood it through George’s descent from a would-be adventurer to a reluctant businessman, as a meditation on dashed dreams—an argument that growing up is, in part, adjusting the hopes you’ve had for the ones you might come to hold.

Watching the movie this year, though, I found that it landed very differently. It read even more darkly. What struck me this time was the dreams’ manner of death: They were extinguished not in an instant, but by repeated dousings. George, played by James Stewart, is a hero whose journey is quite often stuck in the “being tested” phase of things. He tries, so hard, to have adventures away from his small hometown; circumstance, again and again, keeps him homebound. The recurrent nature of his trials seems especially acute right now. The pandemic that looked, earlier this year, like it might be under control has resurged with a new variant. The chance leaders had to do the bare minimum to forestall the planet’s furies has been squandered once again. American democracy, new and ever-fragile, is under threat once more. George Bailey was never just George Bailey; he has always doubled as a collection of decidedly American metaphors. This year, though, he looks more like an omen.

The first thing audiences learn about George is that he is possessed of an intrinsic heroism. As a child, he saved his younger brother, Harry, from drowning after the ice of a pond they were skating on broke. George, without thinking, dived in; Harry lived; George came away with an infection that rendered him deaf in one ear. And then the cadence that defines much of the film—circumstances requiring his sacrifices—sets in. George dreams of traveling the world; he wants the scope of his universe to grow larger than life in Bedford Falls can afford. His initial plans for adventure get curtailed, at the very last minute, because his father has a stroke. He stays. Not long after, George is about to leave for college; minutes before he’s set to depart—the cab is idling outside—he learns that the family business, Bailey Bros. Building & Loan, will survive only if he takes over as its head. George has no interest in finance, but he does what must be done. He stays once again. Later, just as he’s leaving for his honeymoon—he and his wife, Mary, are in the cab this time—he sees a crowd in front of the Bailey Bros. office. There’s a run on the banks. Everyone wants their money back.

Again: George does what he has to do. He stays in Bedford Falls. He sacrifices once more. The circumstances are coincidental; for George, though, they amount for much of the film to a senseless resilience. He is tested and tested and tested, with a notable absence of relief or reward. The hero with a thousand faces is left, instead, with a thousand loan accounts.

The end of It’s a Wonderful Life reliably makes me cry: the community coming together to save George, the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in the Baileys’ living room, the moppet Zuzu Bailey reminding her father that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”—it’s mushy and saccharine and I love it. This time around, though, a much earlier scene brought the tears. George, having taken over the building and loan, is meeting Harry, who had gone to college in his older brother’s stead, at the train station. After four years away, Harry was going to move back to Bedford Falls and take over the business: the brothers swapping timelines, but both fulfilling their dreams.

And then, at the station, Harry disembarks with his new wife, Ruth. George learns that Harry will be taking another job, with her father’s company, outside of Bedford Falls. The camera zooms in on George’s face as he takes in the news, his expression ranging from horror to panic to resignation to despair. For a moment, the quintessential Capra film summons Hitchcock. And then George readjusts his expression into a smile. He understands what the world expects of him: compliance, sacrifice, resilience. Again, he does his duty. It was at that point, specifically, that I found myself tearing up.

How to Move into a New Space or Lease Your First One

How to Move into a New Space or Lease Your First One

How to Move into a New Space or Lease Your First One

5 Steps to Find, Lease and Occupy a New Space

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Whether leasing office space for the first time or moving to a new location, the process of assessing space needs, creating a budget, touring space, and moving can be daunting. One of the elements that makes leasing space so challenging is that there is no universal lease, nor standard building. The good news is that even though the particulars of the leasing journey will differ for every tenant, the general path each must follow is very similar.

Below, we’ve summarized five major steps in the leasing process. Those steps include:

1. Understand Leasing Process.
2. Assess your space needs.
3. Develop a budget.
4. Select a location and a building.
5. Move in!

1. Understand Leasing Process

By understanding the steps in the process and how much time each can take, you can set realistic expectations about the amount of lead time required for you to procure a new location. Small blocks of 500 square feet may take a few weeks to button down, but larger blocks of 5,000 square feet or more may require months to secure and build out to your company’s specifications.

There are a few critical activities to carry out during the early stage of the search. For the most part, these tasks involve time, focus and organization rather than an outlay of cash. They can be completed concurrently and will take between one to six months to complete.

Be clear about why or if your firm needs a space.

A company’s stage of life is often a good guide for determining why, or even if, a company needs a space. A nascent business looking to move out of the founder’s house might consider a coworking or executive suite arrangement. An established business may be growing, so a larger office suite or an additional office in a different location might make sense.

Core Activities

Understanding the needs of the key people involved with your business is very important. So, determining if there is a client base you need to be close to or if employee commuting patterns are a priority is a good place to start. Do you want to be located close to public transit or major highways? These are just some of the considerations you will need to attend to when assessing locations and buildings.

2. Assess Your Space Needs

Figuring out how much space to lease and how the office will be laid out is an important early step in the process. To get started, conducting a back-of-the-napkin calculation can help you generate a reasonable estimate. To accomplish this, multiply the number of employees you need to accommodate by the average number of square feet per worker in the U.S. According to CoStar, this figure currently sits at around 190 square feet for an office use.

So, if you have 6 employees that will each need their own desk or office, you will likely need 1,140 square feet. This figure will rise or fall depending on a host of factors, such as conference rooms or a kitchen that your firm may require; if you will need more offices than cubicles; if you will create a reception area; the column spacing and window line of the buildings you are considering, etc.

3. Develop a Budget

Understanding how much you can afford to pay in rent is critical. Here again, a back-of-the-napkin calculation can help generate a decent approximation. Continuing with the example above, if you lease 1,140 square feet and pay $22 per square foot per year in rent, your monthly rent will be $2,090.

Concerning the $22-per-square-foot figure, you will need to be clear about whether a space is being offered on a full-service or a triple-net basis. The former means that all taxes, utilities and management fees are included in the rent and the latter indicates that you will pay for those expenses in addition to the $22 rent figure. We offer both, depending on the building. Also, those operating expenses can vary widely, anywhere from about 5% to 25% of the base rent.

Remember, if you are looking at a space with a NNN asking rent, you have to factor in all of these additional costs to “gross up” the rent to be equivalent to the other asking office rent types: “net of electricity” or “full service gross.”

Spaces that generally quote by a “net of electricity” and “full service gross” amount include the NNN base rent, plus the operating expenses and janitorial services. The only difference in a “net of electricity” lease is that the tenant pays separately for electricity. Universally, rents quoted on a net of electricity or full service gross basis are more expensive on the surface, but since they include all of the additional cost elements, they may not be as expensive overall relative to a NNN equivalent.

Key Categories to Budget for Early

For overall context, here’s a list of the major upfront expense items to consider when searching for a space. They are organized into three broad categories: lease-related expenses, construction-related expenses and move-related expenses.

Lease-related expenses

  • First month’s rent.
  • Security deposit (refundable).

Construction-related expenses

  • Construction costs.
  • Construction management fees.
  • Permitting fees.

Move-related expenses

  • New furniture.
  • Equipment (new and/or relocation of existing).
  • Signage.

4. Select a location and a building.

In addition to considering where your employees live, you will also want to evaluate where your customers are located. This factor will be particularly crucial for customer-facing organizations, such as retail or medical tenants, but it will also notably impact professional services tenants, including hair salons or . This element also needs to be appraised in reverse; perhaps your company doesn’t host its clients very often, but your employees frequently visit their customers. As with your employees, conducting an analysis of customer zip code information can reveal the most convenient locations for your business from a client perspective.


Commercial leases typically cover long periods of time. During that kind of interval, a lot can change for your business. For this reason, we offer greater flexibility than most companies, flexibility that can be critical when evaluating a potential property. You’ll want to be assured that you’ll have the ability to grow or adapt.

5. Move in!

Notifying clients, filing certificates of occupancy, determining what furniture to keep, purging old files and ensuring that the lights are on at the new office location are all components of a business move. This is the last step in the process after searching, touring, calculating costs, and possibly constructing. While the steps involved in moving may seem intuitive, it is important to plan for the move and set expectations, especially among any employees. Being prepared for each phase of the process will ensure you are open for business in your new location.

South Dallas’s Tyler Station is about Renewal, not Real Estate

South Dallas’s Tyler Station is about Renewal, not Real Estate

South Dallas’s Tyler Station is about Renewal, not Real Estate

Elias Crim


Wednesday, July 19, 2021


Visitors to Dallas quickly hear about the Bishop Arts District, an espresso-and-hip-boutique retail area located in rough (but gentrifying) Oak Cliff. What they’re usually not expecting to find when visiting the neighborhood is a building called Tyler Station, a 100,000-square foot remake of the former Dixie Wax Paper factory. The site houses some 70 small businesses in what Southern Dallas County developer and human connector, Monte Anderson, calls “a collaborative village.” It’s a prime example of what’s known as incremental development.

Colliding for shared prosperity

Artists, makers, and entrepreneurs productively “collide” here — as Anderson likes to put it — in dizzying variety: A co-working space (Wax Space); a martial arts studio (Oak Cliff Aikikai); Oak Cliff Brewing; Crumb & Kettle bakery; a barber shop; a tea store (Zakti); tattoo studios; and an event space (Place at Tyler). “We also had a hippie Baptist church for a while,” he notes, “and now we have the studio of an African American author of what she calls ‘gangster love’ novels — over 100 of them.”

Inside is a vast, high-ceilinged honeycomb of retail spaces constructed with repurposed wood and metal cattle panels so as to allow visitors to look in or chat with a business owner. It’s a large and inviting space. Many colorful events have been held including a Juneteenth Festival, a diaper party, grand openings, Origami Saturday, The Color of Ideas lecture series, community meetings, and much more. Inside is a vast, high-ceilinged honeycomb of retail spaces constructed with repurposed wood and metal cattle panels so as to allow visitors to look in or chat with a business owner. It’s a large and inviting space. Many colorful events have been held including a Juneteenth Festival, a diaper party, grand openings, Origami Saturday, The Color of Ideas lecture series, community meetings, and much more.

“This is not about real estate”

Another thing you notice: Quite a few of the tenants Anderson signs up are small, often minority-owned enterprises launched by people from the immediate area — and on shoestring budgets. As he describes the grassroots feel of Tyler Station, he pauses to add, “You get that this is not about real estate, right?”

A native of Southern Dallas County himself, Anderson is the founding and past president of the North Texas chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a co-founder of the Incremental Development Alliance, a non-profit aimed at coaching small-scale, “missing middle” housing developers and an advocate of resident-driven neighborhood development. He is also a former motocross racer who barely made it through high school, as well as a remarkable social entrepreneur. His numerous real estate developments include a boutique hotel which was key in sparking the Oak Cliff comeback story. 

Making it affordable for low-income tenants

Anderson explains, “Tyler Station is just like what we’re going through now nationally with converting all the big box places, the office centers. We have to figure out how to scale down the rent to a point which is low enough for the area, while still high enough per square foot to make the project sustainable.” Which for Anderson means without subsidies and all the usual strings attached.

“We bought Tyler Station in 2016 for cheap — nobody wanted it. There was environmental contamination, it needed a $750,000 roof, it was full of smokestack equipment and dead raccoons.”

About that time, he decided to partner with Stash Design, a successful studio which specializes in sourcing found and salvaged objects for clients wanting a green-but-stylish look. Taking 20,000 square feet, Stash Design became the project’s anchor tenant and minority partner.

An emergent marketing plan

Yet, the partners did not go into the project with a clear marketing plan. “I thought we would put in a bunch of industrial users, a bunch of makers. But that’s not who showed up,” Anderson says. “It’s like when you’re first cleaning out the building, and then the more you see, the more your ideas change. We just wanted to let the building tell us what it wanted to be.”

He takes his hands-on approach a step further. “I want to teach people how to fish, as they say — but to do that, you have to spend time with them. I work mostly with the folks who are trying to scrape up $250 a month. I let my staff handle the regular business conversations back in the office. Where I’m needed is out in the trenches, feeling it, tasting it. For me, success is watching other people learn to do things — making it their own.”

“Farm where you are”

Toward that goal, Anderson is known for making personal low-interest or interest-free loans to entrepreneurs and cutting deals on the rent. “Here’s an important thing — the majority of our tenants are close by here and from southern Dallas, which has some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. This is exactly what we wanted to see. We wanted to impact the immediate area first, to give them opportunities.”

Translating that goal of localism into a phrase, Anderson simply advises. “Farm where you are.”

Building Needs Help Before Beginning Next Life

Building Needs Help Before Beginning Next Life

Building Needs Help Before Beginning Next Life

Ward bakery needs bank’s help before beginning next life as home for up to 60 enterprises

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — With his hand, Mike Keen brushed flaking paint from a column of pearly white ceramic “subway tiles,” saying, “This can’t rot.”

But, below his feet, the original oak floor had already rotted and been removed, thanks to a roughly 6,000-square-foot hole in the roof that had let rain and snow collect inside of this vacant former bakery at 906-910 Portage Ave., just over a half mile from downtown.

Sprawling piles of garbage were removed this year. Keen could now see across 56,000 square feet of often dark, dank, open floors. He saw past the puddles and mildewed arcade games littered in the basement.

Those tiled walls could become part of the new storefronts on Portage. Windows could again appear in their bricked-in spaces of the historic former Ward Baking Co.

“We’re really trying to create life on the street,” said Keen, managing partner of a group whose goal is to turn this into a nest for up to 60 businesses, artists or organizations in three years.  

At an estimated total cost of $3.75 million, the development’s biggest challenge now, Keen said, is finding the bank financing and the first possible tenants “when this is the best that it has looked in a decade.” 

“You have to have the vision and the patience to see that, in the beginning, you’re going to have almost no impact,” he said.  

Banks, he said, like to feel confident that such a project would land tenants. That may be easier for buildings designed for just two or three tenants, but that wouldn’t fit the vision of what Keen and his project partners aim to do. They want to draw together a collection of small and larger enterprises that could feed off each other and bring life to a previously stagnant area that Keen calls Portage Midtown. 

Across Portage, there are homes that he’s renovated and two 600-square-foot “tiny houses” that he and partners built this spring (with hopes for more in adjacent lots), plus the weekly South Bend Bike Garage co-op that bustles with volunteers each Wednesday evening. It’s all a few steps from the Near Northwest Neighborhood Center and its coffee shop.  

Keen, a retired IU South Bend professor who lives nearby on Riverside Drive, joined his Ward project partners in an LLC they call The Bakery Group: local architect Greg Kil, Borkholder Buildings owner Dwayne Borkholder of Nappanee and Dallas real estate developer Monte Anderson.  

They began cleanup and roof repairs in February. Keen hopes that, if the windows and storefront doors can be installed early in the process, they’ll inspire banks and the public to see how engaging the structure could be. 

The city has discussed allocating tax incremental finance dollars to help with the windows and doors along with other ideas, such as an outdoor plaza here and improvements elsewhere in Portage Midtown, said Santiago Garces, the city’s executive director of community investment. 

Garces said the city is looking at this and other corridors and how to “reactivate” such neglected mid-town spaces so that they draw people from their neighborhoods and even from the region. 

Keen said The Bakery Group’s goal is to repair the building enough so that, in the first year, it could gain an occupancy permit and move in 10 to 15 tenants — or about 30% occupancy — then 70% in the second year and 100% in the third year.

They would build it out one section at a time, structuring it according to what the tenants want, he said.  

Initially, Keen wanted to knock the Ward building down so that there’d be eight vacant lots to develop or build homes, but Anderson convinced him otherwise and offered to become a project partner.  

“Monte said this was too beautiful of a building,” Keen recalled.  

It reminded Anderson of Tyler Station in Dallas, a former wax paper factory, built in 1925 next to a train station, that he turned into a co-working space, now filled with a brewery, fabricators, retail shops, artisans, attorneys, churches, filmmakers, martial arts, wellness instructors and others.  

It’s an example of incremental development. The idea is to build wealth in a neighborhood one piece at a time through small-scale projects. Anderson, who is a founding member of the nonprofit Incremental Development Alliance, has been coaching and mentoring Keen and other aspiring developers in South Bend in recent years, Garces said. 

Likewise, Keen hopes for a mix of tenants in the Ward building, from small businesses that are incubating to others that are “full blown.” By working close to each other, he said, they could talk, share, advise and mentor each other. 

He said he’s been with a wide variety of potential tenants: restaurants, microbreweries, a spa, an individual who records podcasts, an upholstery renovator and so on. No pre-leases have been signed yet. 

City officials are eager to see private investment now that $410,000 of unpaid property taxes have racked up from the building’s previous owners since 2010. South Bend Common Council on June 14 voted 8-0 to approve a tax abatement that would freeze the site’s property taxes for the first two years. After that, the building’s taxes would be cut by 100% the first year, then by 90%, 80% and 70% in the subsequent three years. 

“This is exactly what an economic development revitalization area and tax abatements are designed for,” council member Lori Hamann, D-at large, said, noting how it restores brownstone buildings and “brings life back to an area.” 

Council member Sheila Niezgodski, D-6th, called it “meaningful impact” and “perfect for the neighborhood.” 

From the public, Jordan Giger asked if small, minority-owned businesses would be hired for the renovations.  

“We are committed to being as inclusive as possible,” Keen replied, adding that he’s already been talking with women and minority entrepreneurship programs at Saint Mary’s College, the University of Notre Dame and elsewhere in the community.  

The Ward building was built in three parts: First, the original Busse Bakery built by German immigrants in 1908 at the southern end. Then a larger, two-story space built in 1919 by the Ward Baking Co., which had acquired Busse Bakery. Then a final expansion by Ward in 1945. 

By 1976, as Ward was going out of business, the local company Ford Distributing bought the structure and used it for storing and distributing cigarettes, coffee, candy, glassware and other goods until it closed and left it vacant well more than a decade ago.  

Work to replace the roof is nearly finished. Keen hopes to install 16 skylights and also cut holes into the main floor to create balconies over the now-darkened basement. 

Keen found the original drawings for the building, which were helpful to current plans, hiding inside of a cabinet among the junk that cost $50,000 to remove. A friend took a small Sunfish sailboat that was stored there. Another $137,000 was spent to remove asbestos, including from two giant boilers in the basement that were encrusted with the carcinogen, where Keen dreams of installing a bar with the cleaned up cylindrical beasts there as a decorative element. 

Upstairs, he sees “one of the coolest spaces in South Bend.”  

Light pours through the current windows, which will expand as the bricked-over windows are reopened. 

The basement is a damp, rogues’ gallery of badly corroded and mildewed pinball machines and early-era video games and a stack of restaurant glasses in eroded cardboard. Once it’s renovated, Keen said, he’s talked with people about a possible salt cave here or growing mushrooms. 

The deed for the building arrived in Keen’s mailbox on Christmas Eve, and he’d joked, “It’s either the best Christmas gift ever or the biggest lump of coal in my stocking.” 

But, given how much junk was cleared out this year, Keen laughed and said, “It’s much better than it used to be.”  

Contact reporter Joseph Dits at jdits@sbtinfo.com or 574-235-6158.