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Steward of the past Featured

11:35am EDT March 11, 2004
From the moment you see the "Transfer Bldg., est. 1903" sign hanging over the entrance to Tony Troppe's North High Street office and you peek at the stained glass pieces, wooden molecule models and a print of da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" propped against in the front window, you get the feeling that Troppe's involvement in Akron's Historic District is more the act of a Renaissance man than that of a business tycoon.

His "war room" walls are pinned with maps of Akron's wards and newspaper clippings; new books are stacked with old books and a laptop sits in the middle of a large wooden table. Troppe takes notes, sketches on graph paper and talks about his projects with such zeal that you instinctively take breaths for him so he can continue his discourse.

Troppe, a general partner with The Everett Group and managing member with Canal Town Builders, has combined his skills as a developer with his enthusiasm for history to restore the Everett, Hermes, United and Nantucket buildings. He is planning to build the United Commerce Center from scratch to complement the adjacent United Building.

His company has been pursuing more mercantile, restaurant and professional clients for this district, including this winter's opening of Jacob Good Restaurant across from the city's new 650-car parking garage. Residential loft spaces are being planned at Castle Hall, the Dixon Transfer building and the Maiden Lane corridor, and homes should be available this fall on Hickory, a traditional neighborhood development.

Smart Business sat down with Troppe to discuss the effect of Downtown Akron's past on its future and the live-work-play nodes in the historic district.

You're known for being on a quest in new urbanism. How do you define that term?

New urbanism is a revisitation of old urbanism and the desire to design and build great places in a classical order. The Greeks were known for their mathematical progression and the proportionate detailing of their artistic forms.

If you look at the cross-section of a column, you'll see that its base is proportionate to its column, which is proportionate to its capital, and the ornamentation around it, that, too, was in an order. You can extend that same logic and progressive artistic direction to place-building. As you create a street, the width of the sidewalks and the street reflect the desired direction the intended use wants to go.

There are certain spaces that invite community and create a sense of a pleasant surrounding as the buildings relate to the street, or there are places you go to that if you're not in an automobile, you're alienated. A great place is designed for people and accommodates the automobile. My desire is to help create great places that are distinguished from anyplace else. The historic fabric of places is a key foundation stone to distinguish your great place.

People want to live close to where they play and want to live closer to where they work; the connectivity between those places is a key component. You're looking at five-minute walkable nodes of activity, so that is a great tenet of new urbanism.

Why is restoring historic buildings so important?

You can keep moving out to the perimeter and the ever-expanding sprawl of constant growth, or you can focus on the center of the doughnut.

When you travel to a city, you don't want to go to that place out on the expressway interchange. You want to go to the center of town to see how it emerged. There, you'll find your most interesting buildings. If the city had any long-range vision for itself, it embraced these old places and continued to adaptively reuse these buildings to keep it as an interesting focal point of their community.

The great buildings were typically built to last for hundreds of years. To tear these buildings down to make room for CVS or McDonald's is throwing away your assets that had been planned to be part of a long-term built legacy.

Buildings tell stories, and when you remove the buildings, it's like you remove that chapter. For example, The Academy of Music is now The Everett Building at Main and Market. Many great names performed there: Buffalo Bill, John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin Booth and Sarah Bernhardt. When you take that place out, very few people will remember it, but when you walk to the front door and see 'Academy of Music,' it solidifies that memory because there's this evolution of consciousness.

You build on the history, and by rediscovering your past, a lot of times we get directions for our future.

What inspires you to continue restoring Akron's Historic District?

Each project is different, so we're not reinventing the wheel. We're putting a new spin on each building -- discovering its assets and its value and deciding what it needs to be adaptively reused for a market.

It's important to understand (the building's) original use: How did the building serve the community originally? We spend a lot of time studying archives and reading stories and periodicals. We really are students of the past; that's our first mission.

Being a student of the past enables us to become a steward of the past, in the sense of a manager. This building is under our charge; how will we use this resource? In what way will we give this building new life with the clientele we'll attract to it?

One example is The Nantucket Building. Judge W.B. Doyle had the building built when the courthouse was burnt down in 1899. He held court there for many years. He brought council members in and was mayor of the city.

That building served well during that period. It fell into disrepair in the '60s, and in its next life would be the home of Larry Flynt's Hustler Lounge. Well, that was an unfortunate use for that building, but ... the whole town had fallen into a state of disrepair and decadence. The structure was still good, and we knew we didn't want to put a strip club in there, but its previous use was a very upstanding, fine directive.

We rebuilt the building and moved legal professionals in and a very significant real estate development company. Here's the new life: You expunge the old portions that maybe caused some of its disrepair, and you learn lessons on what to do and what not to do.

What is the most difficult part of restoring historic buildings?

Overcoming the initial inertia. It takes a long-term commitment and long-range vision to see through sometimes very depressing environments that were allowed to be created through lack of attention and maintenance to the property.

After that, it's coordinating the proper design direction, code compliance and managing the construction activities -- all the way down to tenant improvements and move-in. Overcome that initial fear factor, and your ideas can begin a sequential pattern of redevelopment.

How do you attract financing for downtown projects?

Investors have different appetites for different types of projects. Some like commercial. Others like mixed uses. There's a variety of mechanisms for financing.

Banks are looking for a strong pro forma that makes sense five or 10 years down the road. You have a construction period where you redevelop the building and stabilize your tenant base, and you seek out clients who are interested in a long-term relationship for your building.

We are creating a place where the creative class, the knowledge workers, the real economic engineers for tomorrow, are choosing to locate. If you travel around the country, there are 'cities of the future,' creating these new urban models that are the linchpins for growth.

Your ability as a city to attract new talent, and retain the talent that's already growing there ... those cities are going to create long-term sustainability and create economic opportunity. ... We've got to have these types of environments that are building on the past but eyeing the future. How to reach: The Everett Group, (330) 535-3218 or www.everettgrp.com; Canal Town Builders, (330) 376-6460