Kent Landmark Sprouts New Life

Kent Landmark Sprouts New Life: Long Vacant Franklin Hotel Reemerges As Acorn Corner Mixed-Use Development

Downloadable PDF Article: Metis_Acorn_Corner_Properties_Article_June2013

Story and photos by Mark Watt, Properties Magazine (June 2013)

Aggressive redevelopment over the past several years has altered the look and feel of downtown Kent as over $110 million in construction projects have taken place within just a few city blocks. But while much of the area’s resurgence has been the result of newly built structures, the latest project to open has been there all along.

Located on a hilltop at the corner of Depeyster and East Main streets, the 93-year-old Franklin Hotel has reawakened as Acorn Corner, a 22,000-square-foot mixed-use project combining dining, entertainment, office  and residential spaces across five floors and a basement level. The $6.5 million renovation project is the most recent contribution to Kent’s downtown from local philanthropist Ron Burbick, whose forward-thinking Acorn Alley retail and office development next door has been credited as a catalyst for the city’s ongoing revitalization.

Benefiting from $1.6 million in historic tax preservation credits, the Neo-Classical Revival-style, concrete and masonry hotel building has been restored to appear largely as it did when
built in 1920 – at least on the outside. Inside, it has undergone major updates to accommodate modern needs and new uses. It now houses Buffalo Wild Wings on the first floor and mezzanine (second floor), offices for Marathon Financial Services and the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce on the third floor, and five luxury apartments on the top two floors. Soon to be completed is Secret Cellar, a wine bar and jazz club on the basement level.

Symbolically, perhaps no project better signifies Kent’s current renaissance. That’s because the five-story structure, once a prized landmark, had instead become a sign of the city’s
deterioration in recent decades. After a conversion from a hotel to student housing in the 1970s, the building declined and by 1980 its top three floors were condemned. The remaining space was occupied by a series of nightclubs into the ‘90s, but was then boarded up and had sat vacant since.

As newly constructed buildings emerged around the old hotel, some in the community called for the blighted structure to be demolished to make way for something new, believing years of negligence had left the building beyond repair. So when its doors finally opened again this spring after a 15-month renovation, it marked an exciting and unlikely rebirth for a forgotten asset.

Developing a Solution

In fall 2011, downtown Kent’s revival was already in full swing. Burbick’s pair of mixed-use developments – Acorn Alley I and then newly opened Acorn Alley II – had created new retail establishments and second-floor offices along a pedestrian-friendly walkway cut through two city blocks. Construction had begun on the first two phases of Fairmount Properties’College Town Kent mixed-use development, as well as the Kent Central Gateway, a parking garage and transit station for the Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority. At the same time, plans were being finalized for the new Kent State Hotel & Conference Center nearby.

Standing in the midst of all the new activity was the old Franklin Hotel, which had become a battleground of litigation between the city and its two previous owners.

The legal logjam finally broke that October when the existing owner agreed to sell the property to the City of Kent for $735,000. In turn, the City sold Burbick the building for $400,000.

“We were willing to take a loss to get the old hotel into the right hands,” says Kent’s City Manager Dave Ruller. “It’s a landmark for the city that’s physically at the highest point downtown. Mr. Burbick had a great track record with Acorn Alley and we knew we had an investor capable of delivering the kind of product that the community wanted.”

Assessing opportunity

Burbick set to work quickly and began exploring possibilities for the building with Doug Fuller, of Kent-based Fuller Design Group, the architect behind both Acorn Alley projects.

“The previous owner had gone in and just gutted the building,” Burbick says, adding that the floors once could barely be seen because of bird droppings, dead birds and squirrels.

Still, the building was in good condition structurally, according to Steve Brandle, project manager with Metis Construction Services, which served as construction manager. Nearly all interior partitions had been removed, exposing clear views within the structure, which is composed of flat plate concrete slab floors supported by concrete columns.

“Because the building had been stripped bare, any problems were easily identified, which was a positive for a project like this,” Brandle says. “The challenge was more or less in finding ways to fix those problems.”

This included refilling holes that had been crudely hacked into the concrete throughout to make way for plumbing. Reshoring of floors was also necessary.

Because concrete floors have a tendency to deflect, or sag, over time, tests were performed to verify the strength of the building. One such test was the installation of a temporary, 12-inch deep and 490-square-foot “weighting pool” on the first floor. The pool was filled with water in increments as measurements were made from the basement to gauge deflection.

“The engineer was allowing up to a half-inch of deflection and he was amazed that it was at just about
a 1/16th of an inch when the pool was filled,” Burbick says. “That was just over and above what he was expecting.”

Outside, there originally had been concern about the integrity of the brick facade, as portions of the
east-facing exterior wall appeared to bow out in several places. City officials were worried that the brick face was actually peeling from the building.

“Through a lot of investigation, it was discovered that the building was actually constructed that
way,” Brandle says, adding that it appears that, in lieu of scaffolding off the outside when originally
erected, exterior bricks were laid from inside which caused an outward lean in areas.

As Fuller notes, the analysis overall proved it was a solid structure. “The bricks near the top of the building are just as tight against the concrete and secure as those on the bottom,” he says. “While the craftsmanship wasn’t great, the materials used – the concrete, steel reinforcing and the brick – were good quality and have continued to perform very well.”

Modern Needs + Historic Details

Early on, the team enlisted an independent preservation consultant – Diana Wellman, from Preservation Principles Consulting – to act as a liaison with the Ohio Historic Preservation Office and assist in obtaining historic preservation tax credits. According to Brandle, much of the guidance was geared toward making original building features clearly recognizable to visitors – and ensuring that any new adaptations wouldn’t be mistaken as original.

“They want to avoid historic confusion so that you don’t see those spaces as they are today and think that they could have existed that way historically,” Brandle says.

The building’s exterior is now almost entirely as it appeared when originally built. Several exterior doors were bricked in but their outlines remain clearly visible and a new entrance canopy was installed along the building’s north-facing front entrance along Main Street. Otherwise, the exterior matches what is shown in historical photographs of the building, from the rebuilt sandstone water table wrapping the bottom of the structure, up to the pressed metal cornice work along the roof. Major work included repointing the entire brick veneer facade and restoring existing windows to their original condition.

The interior, however, is almost all new, as previous owners had stripped the old hotel of most original features. The few remaining features include original baseboard trim work along exterior walls on upper floors, some window sills and an existing tile mosaic floor at ground level that has been restored but ultimately covered.

An existing stair connecting the first floor and mezzanine was deemed unacceptable as a means of egress and was replaced with a modern metal stair, according to Fuller.

Likewise, an undersized and nonworking elevator was considered inadequate, requiring the installation of a new elevator and stairwell. Adhering to National Park Service guidance, the new elevator tower is situated at the southwest corner of the building, as far from the main facade as possible. To differentiate the addition from the historic structure, it is composed of a modern concrete and textured block with wide banding, and a new window design.

The original elevator shaft now serves as a vertical duct run to allow a newly installed HVAC system to feed all floors. Any extra space was helpful, as ceiling heights are relatively low.

“From deck to the bottom of most of the beams that were existing, it was seven foot, six inches,” Brandle says “That was one of the challenges: situating the mechanicals and plumbing so they’d work.”

Soffits are used to conceal ductwork and pipes throughout, while in some areas ceilings are exposed to create a sense of openness. Standard rooftop units feed lower levels, while split residential-style systems provide HVAC for upper floors. Sprinklers are fed by a diesel fire pump located in a basement mechanical room.

The project also included installation of new electrical and security systems, and structural repairs to the roof, which is a built-up asphalt system with a brick parapet.

Adapted For New Occupants

Key to the project was Buffalo Wild Wings, which came aboard as an anchor tenant early on. Relocating from an outdated building nearby on Franklin Avenue, the restaurant ultimately invested $1.5 million for shell construction and build-out of its new space, which once served as the hotel lobby. At 7,000 square feet and with seating for 240 customers, the restaurant’s new home – featuring a 35-foot-wide TV above its first-floor bar – is twice the size of its previous location.

“Buffalo Wild Wings has been a huge benefit to the project,” Fuller says. “It would have made progress more difficult without a business like that coming in and willing to spend their own money in renovating their space.”

Upper floors, each 3,000 square feet and once lined with 15 small hotel rooms, have been refashioned for office and residential use.

The third floor includes new offices for Kent Area Chamber of Commerce, which doubles the group’s available space with a main office, executive director’s office and storage area. Also on the third floor is Marathon Financial Services, a Kent-based financial services firm, as well as a shared community conference room.

Two pairs of market-rate apartments reside on floors four and five. Ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 square feet, each includes stainless steel appliances and quartz countertops, as well as a wall-mounted flat-screen TV. An additional 750-square-foot, fourth floor efficiency suite is reserved for
use by the Burbick Foundation.

Still under construction is Secret Cellar, the wine bar and jazz club that will reside on the basement level. The space, originally occupied by the hotel’s barbershop and billiards room, features
11-foot ceilings and exposed brick walls. Burbick expects the 1920s-styled, speakeasy-
inspired establishment to open by mid-summer.

A Fresh Start

Looking back on the project as it nears completion, Burbick says he’s happy to have pulled off renovating a building that once seemed only worthy of demolition.

“It was a challenge getting the project to meet all the historical criteria but still doing it the way we wanted for modern living,” he says. “But I think we did it. It’s been a great project.”

Fuller adds how important it was to rescue such an iconic structure for the City of Kent.

“In my opinion, it would have been a disaster for the city if we had lost this old building in the midst of all of this new construction,” he says. “The City of Kent deserves a lot of credit for stepping forward and investing in the project in the way they did by getting it into [Burbick’s] hands. And then, for
the design and construction team to put this together in 15 months, it’s a testament to the skills and determination of everyone who worked hard to make this happen.”