Unusual housing from renovated factories

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TENANTS begin moving into Cobbler Square on Chicago's Near North Side within the next few months. They'll join the growing ranks of urban pioneers in cities around the country who find the architectural diversity available in renovated factories, such as the former Dr. Scholl plant, far more exciting than the bland cookie-cutter sameness of the apartments most are leaving.

The fact that their new apartments are convenient to Chicago's Loop is another plus.

Regardless of the size, cities from coast to coast, which have refrained from bulldozing decaying factories and small manufacturing plants in the name of urban renewal, now find themselves in the enviable position of being able to attract affluent yuppies back to the city with housing that is out of the ordinary.

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''Our idea was to draw a tenant mix attracted to both historic loft renovations and adventurous contemporary architecture,'' says Richard Perlman, developer of Cobbler Square.

''Developers find rehabbing these historic industrial buildings into rental units especially appealing, because the cost of financing a conversion is considerably less than building and they also enjoy a bonanza of historic preservation tax credits,'' says Robert Miller, vice-president of the Real Estate Research Corporation, the nation's oldest real estate consulting firm.

The actual construction costs of converting a soundly built older structure into loft apartments, he adds, is much less than building a conventional apartment building, because the cost of creating open loft space is much less than a traditional apartment.

Miller also cites the revitalization of an aging downtown business area as another bonus of these creative conversions of crumbling factories into one-of-a-kind housing and office space.

The first residential adaptations of industrial buildings were intended to provide cheap and abundant space for artists. The occupants didn't mind living with exposed ductwork and rafters,unplastered brick walls, and other grubby elements scorned by renters with conventional tastes.

But now that loft dwelling has caught on with upper-middle-class urbanites, developers are marketing specifically to this group with renovations that retain some of these authentic but spiffed-up elements, such as new exposed ductwork, sanded rafters, and tuckpointed brick interior walls, all of which cost considerably less than finished apartments.

''But there is a limit on the number of buildings that are available for this type of development,'' Mr. Miller cautions. ''Some cities have the buildings but they are not adjacent to the downtown area, while others never had them or else bulldozed them years ago. The cities which have the right buildings in the right place are enjoying a renaissance.''

Crisscrossing the country, Mr. Miller cites just a few examples of the adaptive reuse of historic industrial buildings for resident and commercial purposes.

''The former Phoenix Hosiery Factory in Milwaukee has been converted into condominium lofts and office space,'' he says. In Janesville, Wis., work will begin shortly on the renovation of an old cotton mill into apartments. A Spartan brick ice-cream factory in Cincinnati has been transformed into office space.

A former piano factory now provides loft housing for artists in Boston, while the Indianapolis Glove Company, a six-story brick factory in the raceway city, is in its second life as a collection of condos and town houses. A former textile mill in Lowell, Mass., now is used for senior-citizen housing.

Chicago is an especially attractive city for this type of adaptive reuse, according to Mr. Miller. ''For decades the city was the center for small manufacturing and wholesale businesses that required large open-spaced buildings that today are so dear to the heart of developers,'' he adds.

Richard Perlman is one such developer. He is currently putting the finishing touches on Cobbler Square, a $25 million project that will occupy two city blocks and will preserve for tenants the 15-foot ceilings, exposed wood support and ceiling beams, exposed brick walls with arched doorways, and eight-foot windows.

This rental ''loft village'' of seven buildings, surrounding landscaped courtyards and interconnected by 100,000 square feet of climate-controlled glass and steel walkways, will also include indoor parking and shopping.

The site of Cobbler Square was originally the home of Western Wheel Works, at one time the world's largest bicycle manufacturer, employing as many as 1,750 workers. By the early 1900s, Americans had switched their loyalties from the bicycle to the automobile.

At the same time, a young physician, Dr. William Scholl, had set up shop in a corner office in one of the Wheel Works buildings. The small foot-comfort business soon grew into a major industry and by 1911 Dr. Scholl's company had taken over the entire Wheel Works operation.

In 1981 the firm moved to Tennessee and the complex was abandoned.

In the new development, tenants will be able to choose from 40 different layouts available for the 293 loft apartments. Apartments will range in size from 470 to 1,350 square feet with rents from $450 to $1,250 a month.

The project is being financed with a $3.5 million Urban Development Action Grant, $12.5 million in city bonds, and $9 million in loans and private equity.

Architect Kenneth Schroader is using the well-known image of Dr. Scholl's products as a marketing tool along with the graphics of the original bike manufacturer.

Each building will have its own identifying tag, such as the Dr. Scholl's Toe Flex drawing on the Wheel Works Exhibit logo from the 1893 Columbian Exposition. And to ensure the message has not been lost, a swimming pool on top of one of the structures will have a tile foot at its bottom.

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