A casual observer couldn’t tell from the outside, but major work is underway inside the massive former Studebaker Corp. assembly plant that provides a backdrop to downtown’s southern skyline.
Hardwood floorboards from nearly a century ago are being pulled up for reuse, while elsewhere in the vacant building workers behind sealed temporary walls are carefully removing peeling lead-based paint. Asbestos removal and much of the PCB removal is complete.
When that work is done, what will be left is 800,000 square feet of open space within the steel-reinforced concrete building complex.
That’s where businessman Kevin Smith plans to craft his next venture: expansion of his Union Station Technology Center high-tech hub that has long operated in the former city train station on South Street.
“You can’t ignore your heritage. You have to reclaim it,” Smith told the South Bend Tribune while walking through the old assembly plant on a recent cold morning. “We need to give our community the right to believe in ourselves.”
Smith believes so much that he’s already invested about $9.7 million on the project, and expects to spend in excess of $17.5 million.
Auto production in the complex shut down in December 1963, a few weeks after Studebaker Corp. announced it would close the South Bend factory. In the decades since, the unheated cavernous structure had been mostly used for leased storage of automobiles, boats and industrial supplies.
Smith describes his vision for the renovated complex: Offices and other work spaces taking up much of the six-story building and adjacent two-story south building, residential condos with “green roof” patios on the top floor of the main building, secure data storage in the west section of that building and commercial/restaurant space on the first floor of the south building. The complex will include an auditorium and an early childhood center, he said.
Large amounts of heat produced by the supercomputers in the data storage area will be used to heat the building, he said.
“Even if you’re standing in the center of the building, you won’t be more than 50 feet away from natural light,” Smith said. Most of the original glass of the windows will have to be replaced, but the industrial look will remain.
A large courtyard exists between the buildings, created when the blizzard of 1978 caused a partial roof collapse. That courtyard is slated to become a glass-topped atrium, filled with plants and warmed by heat from the computers.
“There could be about 3,000 people working here,” Smith said. He said it’s a project that will take about 10 years.
He’s working on renovation designs with Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, a large Chicago-based architectural and design firm that does work around the globe and focuses on sustainable projects. Smith is hopeful the building may have its first tenant by the end of 2015.
The former Studebaker complex for years has been called Ivy Tower, but Smith says a new name will be selected as the renovation proceeds.
The city of South Bend is contributing about $7.9 million to the project: $4.38 million for remediation and about $3.5 million to create a parking lot to the south, move utilities and make other infrastructure improvements. The funds are from the Airport Tax Increment Finance District.
“There have been delays because of the weather,” said Brock Zeeb, the city’s director of economic resources. The paint removal is taking longer than original expected because the process uses water, which complicates the work in the frigid temperatures of the unheated building, he said.
One surprise workers came across was about 100 55-gallon barrels of hazardous materials — oil- or lubricant-based liquids — that were found in the building’s basement, left when Studebaker ceased auto production there a half-century ago, Zeeb said. The city paid about $26,838 for safe removal and disposal.
Remediation work is expected to be complete by late summer, and the parking lot likely will be constructed in the fall, Zeeb said.
Smith will be able to start work on the interior building improvements by late August.
The assembly plant and three nearby buildings — the former Studebaker Administration Building, Union Station and Vandalia Depot — have been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, through a joint effort by the owners, the Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend and St. Joseph County, and Indiana Landmarks Inc. It would be called the Studebaker-Railroad Corridor Historic District.
Inclusion on the National Register would make the buildings eligible for federal rehabilitation tax credits, which could help the owners make improvements.
Building 84, the six-story assembly plant, built in 1923, was designed by famed Detroit-based industrial design architect Albert Kahn, who pioneered the use of reinforced concrete construction for industrial buildings. At the time he was hired by Studebaker to design the assembly plant, he had already designed buildings in Detroit for Ford and Packard. Building 84 is believed to be the last Kahn-designed building remaining in South Bend.
Adjacent to the south is Building 113, a two-story structure built in 1945, with design attributed to Albert Kahn’s firm after his death. Building 112, a two-story structure, was added west of the assembly plant in 1944-45 as a body, tool and machine shop, according to Historic Preservation Commission records.
Smith, now a Niles resident, was born and raised in South Bend and graduated from Clay High School. He started work at age 15 with his father, Earl Smith, who founded the Deluxe Sheet Metal company in the family’s two-car garage.
Smith attended the University of Notre Dame, the first in his family to go to college. He lived at home and worked construction jobs to pay for school, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1979.
That was the same year he bought Union Station. Smith said people wondered about him when he decided to buy the city’s dilapidated, long-shuttered former train station that saw its last passenger depart in 1971. “They thought I was crazy,” he said.
He housed Deluxe Sheet Metal there before converting the former depot to a technology center.
Union Station became an attractive place for high-tech ventures because the high-speed fiber-optic lines carriers use run along the nearby railroad easements. The former train station provides a secure home for supercomputers owned by more than 30 clients. Smith is nearly out of space there, and ready to expand into the old assembly plant south of the railroad tracks.
Smith said the expansion will provide first-class space for existing area businesses and data storage.”This is such a backdrop,” he said, gesturing to the massive building. “Companies getting into the digital economy will find it very appealing.”
Union Station Technology Center will be the front door to the expanded tech center. A tunnel from the train station will be extended under the railroad tracks into the renovated assembly plant, providing access both ways.
Smith owns 10 companies, three based in Union Station, while Deluxe Sheet Metal and six others are located on the city’s northwest side. As the Ivy Tower project moves forward, he intends to relocate most of his businesses to the complex.
As he plans for the future of Ivy Tower, Smith said he’s inspired by projects elsewhere: such as the former American Tobacco factory in Durham, North Carolina, which was converted into an office, entertainment and residential complex. It’s near the Durham Bulls baseball park, and includes the American Underground, a space for entrepreneurs, startups and investors.
“Let’s look back on our history,” Smith said, “and build on it.”
Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com
Filed Under: Industrial automation