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A Future Built on the Past: For renovators constructing restaurants in vacant buildings, it's not a
By Jennie Schlueter - Photos by Katherine Bish
Posted On: 03/02/2005   


Makeovers are all the rage on reality television these days, with eager participants trading spaces, transforming into swans and taking fashion tips from the Fab Five. And now, it appears that this trend has begun to spill over into urban areas across the country, where existing architecture is being “made over” instead of torn down, retaining the historical significance of local neighborhoods.

In St. Louis, some old buildings have become lofts; others provide office space. And because everyone loves a unique dining experience, many are being transformed into new restaurants. A lot goes into these projects and, as you might expect, it’s not always easy making the old new again.

KEEPING IT REAL

Downtown, many buildings have been deemed historic, but maintaining that history during a rehab can be a bit tricky. The city has strict regulations governing what rehabbers can and can’t do, especially on the exterior of buildings, where no changes are allowed.

Many have old windows, and owners often want to replace them with new ones that feature insulated, low-e glass to help save on energy costs. But regulations require that any replacement parts look exactly like the original, which can be tough. As Brett Pernikoff, director of business development at Pernikoff Construction, said, “They don’t make the old-style windows anymore, the old steel windows.”

Even when original materials are still available, they can be quite costly. For example, while terra cotta and carved marble are common in some historic buildings, fixing or replacing them can quickly inflate the price of the rehab project. The trick is to find a less-expensive modern material that looks identical to the original so everyone’s happy.


UP TO CODE

And speaking of keeping people happy, one of the keys to a successful rehab is making sure the project complies with city and county codes and regulations. There are approximately 56 municipalities in the St. Louis area, so following the right rules can be complicated. In many ways, though, the city is definitely on the side of the builder. Especially Downtown, where rehab fever has really caught on, rehabbers can take advantage of incentives, tax breaks and special programs, which range from the planting of trees to splitting the cost of
new sidewalks.

When McGowan Bros. Development, a company that specializes in rehabbing historic buildings, made over the Rudman Building at 1228 Washington Ave., it was able to take advantage of several tax breaks and incentives. Tim McGowan said he’s never had any trouble working with city and county officials on meeting codes and regulations, and explained that the trick is finding the right person to talk with. “Then you realize everyone’s caught the excitement,” he said.

THE BEST-LAID PLANS

Michael Pernikoff, executive vice president of Pernikoff Construction, said that people looking to get into the restaurant business generally have a pretty good idea of what their projects will involve, but they typically end up spending more than they thought because of, among other things, hidden costs and unforeseen roadblocks.

Unlike ground-up construction, where costs are relatively straightforward and investors can plan accordingly, pricy obstacles in a rehab project may not emerge until you’re knee-deep in 100-year-old plaster. “You try to do as much investigation beforehand, but it’s so hard when you do these old buildings, and you open up a wall and all the sudden there’s a plumbing stack or an electrical outlet that shouldn’t be there,” said Brett Pernikoff.

Take Pernikoff Construction’s rehab of Mosaic restaurant at 11th Street and Lucas Avenue. Workers were installing a sprinkler system when they opened up the ceiling and discovered an Egyptian tile that didn’t go with the theme of the restaurant. When they removed the tile, there was yet another layer of ceiling that had to be removed in order to get to the original wood ceiling. Even then, the original ceiling had to be power washed and sandblasted to remove the paint and restore it to its original beauty.

The demolition that goes along with rehabbing is also more expensive than building a project from the ground up. And older buildings usually need a lot of work to bring them up to current codes and regulations, such as meeting Americans with Disabilities Act standards for bathrooms and installing sprinkler systems where there were none.

Rehabbing restaurants in particular can present some bizarre challenges. As Brett Pernikoff said, “When you build a retail store, you put walls up, you put a bathroom in [and] you call it a day. When you do a restaurant, you have to deal with kitchen equipment, all the design – because every restaurant wants to be different. You have that extra thinking process where one restaurant wants to do a bamboo soffit around the bar, like at Elephant Bar Restaurant in West County. When in your lifetime have you built a bamboo soffit? Never! So each restaurant is very different, and that’s what makes it difficult.”

These special touches give the finished restaurant its character, but they can be pricey. So what if a project ends up costing significantly more than originally planned and the owner just can’t afford it? Michael Pernikoff said sometimes the owner will go back to the landlord and ask for some financial help, or they’ll work out an agreement in the lease. Pernikoff Construction can also do something they call “value engineering.” If a project has a certain budget but the plans call for materials that exceed that budget, they’ll go back through the plans and substitute a laminate floor for a real wood floor, for example, or a different type of paint that isn’t quite as expensive but achieves the same effect.

How long do most rehab projects take? Like most aspects of this business, the answer to that depends on many things. The Mosaic project, a renovation that included the restaurant and the first-level lobby, took two-and-a-half to three months to complete, while the Lucas Park Grille and Market on the first level of the newly renovated Rudman Building took four.

Much of the timing rests on ordering kitchen equipment early enough in the process so it arrives in time to be installed. Michael Pernikoff said, “It’s not fun when somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, by the way, the ovens are in Philadelphia, and they just got hit by 16 inches of snow.’ Then you have to change the schedule and also write letters saying, ‘Please note that due to weather conditions beyond our control, this isn’t coming along or is damaged.’”

BENEFITTING THE NEIGHBORHOOD

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But McGowan said he didn’t run into any major snags while rehabbing the building that would eventually house the Lucas Park Grille. There, he and his company converted 125,000 square feet of vacant space into 45,000 square feet of commercial space and 48 lofts. Despite the success of much of the commercial space and of the lofts, McGowan said they had a tough time finding a restaurant to occupy the building’s first floor. So together with partners John Carroll and Andy Hillin, they decided to open one themselves.

Although McGowan was a restaurant manager in a past life, Lucas Park Grille wasn’t the culmination of many years of restaurant dreams. “I did it as a way to provide a tenant for our building and an amenity for our neighborhood,” he said. Because the market sells such staples as milk, cheese, eggs and bread, it has been a welcome addition to a neighborhood that didn’t always have such domestic conveniences.

This is one of the greatest benefits of rehabilitation projects. Restaurants in particular draw people and help revitalize neighborhoods, restoring greatness and renewing hope for the future. It’s this optimism that will make restoration efforts in St. Louis and around the country successful. For its part, McGowan Bros. has projects booked until 2008, so at least in our area, the trend doesn’t seem to be losing steam anytime soon.

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