Dimit Architects’ project the Wagner Awning Building was featured in the July 2017 issue of Properties Magazine.

Photo by Lauren Pacini

Uncovering Opportunity

Wagner Awning Building transformation yields new apartments, refreshed office space in Tremont

By Carlo Wolff

The subtle but radical transformation of the former Wagner Awning factory in the Tremont neighborhood on Cleveland’s near west side proves that such adaptive reuse is not only possible; it shows how a dedicated team can – and should – work.

That seems to be the consensus of the people behind the conversion of the 1895 structure from industrial to residential in 2015-2016. The 88,000-square-foot landmark at Scranton Road and Auburn Avenue has only paused once – last year, when it closed for six months so 59 one-bedroom apartments could be built in a space where awnings used to be manufactured. The awning building, meanwhile, is relocating to Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.

Since it debuted its new use in November 2016, the sturdy L-shaped structure, with a painted light gray brick exterior, has been thriving- all of its apartments are rented and occupied. Blue Star Design, a design, marketing and web agency, has leased almost half of the 12,000-square-foot basement.

The northwest-facing building stands at the heart of a parcel including two parking lots which, combined, can accommodate 83 cars. The building’s developer, Sustainable Community Associates (SCA), plans to build another 50 apartments on a vacant lot across Scranton in 2018.

The 1.75-acre Wagner Awning site is the second Cleveland venture for SCA, an Oberlin company that in 2014 converted the long-shuttered Fairmont Creamery on the Ohio City-Tremont border into 30 apartments, offices and a gym. Josh Rosen, Naomi Sabel and Ben Ezinga are the Oberlin College graduates who formed SCA, launching their first development, the $17 million East College Street Project, in that city 35 miles west of Cleveland in 2002.

The trio bought Wagner Awning for $930,000. That was the first step in the $14 million project. Northwest Bank came up with a construction loan of $8.725 million. Funding was completed through $3 million in tax credit investment from Enhanced Capital and Nationwide Insurance, along with a mezzanine loan from Village Capital, $200,000 in city funds and SCA equity.

Project partners include Dimit Architects, the Lakewood firm that also designed the Fairmont Creamery renovation; Welty Building Co. of Cleveland; and Naylor Wellman, a Cleveland Heights-based historical consultant.

Reshaping a locale

Rosen came to know the owner of Wagner Awning through neighborhood block club meetings. The Tremont West Development Corp., which also helped shepherd the Fairmont Creamery redo, furthered the relationship. The fact that Fairmont Creamery and Wagner Awning are in the same block club helped cement the bond.

Tremont West acted as a bridge between Wagner Awning owner Alec Morse and SCA. The former was eager to find a new home for his business, while the latter was raring to repurpose the Tremont building that had come to be known since the 1990s as Ohio Awning.

“We were able to set up a situation where Ohio Awning knew he had a buyer and he could go find a place. He knew that we would rent back to him while he was doing the build-out,” says Rosen. “It’s kind of a cool story as opposed to us just like displacing someone.”

Wagner Awning now consists of one-bedroom units with high-end finishes and state-of-the-art appliances. At 650 square feet to 1,250 square feet, the apartments rent for $600 to $1,250 a month. While there are foyers on each of the three floors, complete with large, vintage photographs of Wagner Awning through the years, there are no communal spaces other than a 2,000-square-foot elevated deck in the enclosed courtyard. Wagner Awning is pet-friendly, by the way.

“We like dealing with people who want to find an apartment for under $1,500,” says Rosen. “That’s a really good, untapped market. While other new buildings are going after the young lawyer, we like going after the young graphic designer.”

Appealing to workers at Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and MetroHealth, among others, Wagner Awning is also benefiting from the tight rental market in downtown Cleveland, he suggests. Some tenants are downtown spillover, some are from out of town and, Rosen says, “I think others are just wanting to live in Tremont.”

The apartments, awash in natural light, are low-impact, earth-toned in palette and high-tech. The appliances are Energy Star, and the bathrooms are tiled, with an enclosed shower and tub. There’s a stacked washer and dryer in a discreet, capacious closet.

Essentially, everything inside the building is new except for the old-growth maple floors. In one wing, the wood was so worn out, it necessitated installation of new, painstakingly matched flooring. Ceilings stretch 13 to 14.5 feet, and floor plans vary widely. Because of historical state tax credit requirements, the placement of windows and doors remains true to the original design.

Challenges to overcome

Adapting the building for its new life took only 11 months, but there were hurdles. An interior section that had rotted out needed to be rebuilt, and a new floor had to be constructed where a 1963 tornado had ripped it away.

The roof over a small, one-story wooden structure near the loading dock had leaked to the point of rot, collapsing after the purchase but before construction, according to Gary Ogrocki, Dimit Architects project principal. Because the electrical panels were there, “we first had to stabilize the electrical system and that portion of the building had to be demolished, taken away and rebuilt.”

That tornado 54 years ago “blew out the windows along the courtyard and part of the third floor,” says historical consultant Diana Wellman. “The entire rear windows were blocked in with CMU [concrete blocks] as a result, and many of the third-floor windows on the other elevations had makeshift Plexiglas and 2×4 frames. Only partial first- and second-floor sash remained. All of the windows were replaced. The third floor was rebuilt to the original appearance on the exterior, while the interior is composed of modern construction.”

“The biggest challenge is that historic buildings have many ‘ghosts’ that are unknown until work begins,” says Alan Pollack, project manager for the Welty Cleveland Group, which signed onto the project in November 2015. “Once the ‘secrets’ are revealed, it takes a team effort to identify them, figure out a solution (and the associated costs), and implement the work while trying to maintain the scheduled completion date. The masonry restoration is especially a challenge. The masonry scope of work tends to grow as the masons get started and become intimate with the existing conditions.”

The roof had to be removed and replaced. So did the HVAC systems, which now need to accommodate the demands of a residential building, Pollack says.

Also, because of those historic tax credits, a prototype for the replacement windows required state blessing before the full order could be placed. The order didn’t arrive until late August, compressing the schedule for work on the exterior masonry and the interior finishes. “Neither of those areas of work could commence until the replacement windows were installed,” Pollack says.

At the same time, Dimit’s Ogrocki says retaining the building’s historic character was key. That meant saving several staircases, preserving historical tie-bar core trusses (a type no longer used) and “sensitively” integrating life-safety features.

“In such a remix,” he says, “we can’t really change the historic character of the building, especially on the exterior; on the interior we had some latitude, but we have to keep all the significant historic elements intact.” The checklist the state preservation office assembles for tax credits is rigorous, and Wagner Awning had to compete against all the other projects in the state. Without historic tax credits, a project like this often dies, said Ogrocki.

“One of the challenges was that there are a lot of new apartments coming online in Cleveland, Tremont and Ohio City,” he adds “there’s a lot of competition out there, we have to make these historic apartments compete with newer places at a market rate level.”

According to RentJungle, a search engine that tracks housing markets, the average apartment rental cost, as of May, in the city of Cleveland was $962, with one-bedrooms going for a monthly average of $836 and two-bedrooms for $1,098. According to the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, 1,100 residential units will come online this year, swelling the downtown residential population to 16,000. The occupancy rate has averaged more than 95 percent for the past six years.

“New construction doesn’t always have the natural light Wagner Awning does, these apartments have lots of large historic windows. It doesn’t have those strong character historic wooden floors.” Ogrocki notes.

Yet new constructed elements enhanced the project, like the EPDM rubber roof – “cost-effective and energy-efficient,” says Ogrocki – that replaced the old one. When new construction was needed to return the building to its pre-tornado conditions, it was guided by history. Vintage photographs helped Dimit Architects properly replicate the exterior masonry, guaranteeing that the new painted bricks would match the horizontal rows of the existing coursing. Even the new awnings adorning first-floor windows along Scranton and Auburn, which Wagner Awning just manufactured, echo the company’s 1940s logo.

Wagner Awning, a building with good bones, shows that the old can be fresh all over again.

The lessons of Wagner Awning

• Be flexible. Meeting current code is the biggest challenge in adaptive reuse, says Wellman. “Some physical aspects of the building can’t readily be changed, but the alternative code for historic buildings allows varying approaches to accomplish the goals to ensure the building is safe while maintaining the character defining features.”

• Love those credits. To SCA’s Rosen, Wagner Awning underlines “the importance of the federal and state historic tax credit in reinvigorating Cleveland’s neighborhoods and the need to elect a Congress who will protect these programs so that Cleveland can continue to benefit.”

• Be patient. Wagner Awning “easily lent itself to a new use while maintaining character-defining features,” says Wellman. “It is a misnomer that historic buildings are difficult to adapt. It just takes the right team, a flexible developer, architect and contractor who are willing to see the building first and adapt the project needs to the rehabilitation.”

• Collaboration gets results. To Welty executive Pollack, Wagner Awning is “all about a cohesive team working together to collectively find a way to turn a rough piece of coal into a diamond.” That teamwork turned that building into a “viable residential property.”

• Stress the history. Pictures tell stories. So do buildings. Asked to explain the palette in Wagner Awning units, Dimit Architects’ Ogrocki says, “you want to let the historic features of the building be more visible, so you should pick colors, textures and finishes that emphasize that historic character. You want that to come through. You can’t really replicate it.”

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from South Euclid. Reach him at carlo.wolff@gmail.com.