NORTH RIDGEVILLE — The city is looking at renovating the AT&T building at the corner of Maddock and Center Ridge roads.
A proposal to rehabilitate the imposing, three-story building, empty for years, will be discussed Monday by City Council. If the city goes forward, the building would become an annex for City Hall, with the city possibly moving the Building, Engineering and possibly the Utilities departments there.
The initial legislation — if passed — calls for the city to pay $219,500 to EMD Studio Inc. to design and manage the renovation.
The building was built in the late 1930s or early 1940s by AT&T as a switching station between New York and Chicago. Like many stations built by the carrier, it is an open concept meant to hold operators and switchboards on its first floor, and an office on its second. In the basement, a tunnel that has since been bricked over ran to Center Ridge Road full of cables, Safety Service Director Jeff Armbruster said.
But, as technologies advanced, operators quickly became obsolete, with the basement later containing automated switches. Similar buildings are scattered throughout the country, with one almost identical on West 150th Street and Lorain Road in Cleveland, he said.
“It was going to be a mainstay and they built it just like the rest of the telephone buildings across the country, at least in the Midwest,” he said. “They probably just duplicated that all the way through. And it was built on Center Ridge Road down there because that was probably — and I’m speculating — an inexpensive piece of property that was zoned appropriately that they could actually build and be on where the main line (on) Center Ridge Road where most of the communication went through at that point from here to Chicago.”
Eventually, AT&T abandoned the building. Armbruster said he wasn’t sure how long the building sat vacant before the city bought it in December 2006 for $272,904.
Given the age of the building, there were environmental hazards to consider before the city could use the space to its full extent. The 18,000-square-foot structure required a multiphase environmental study and eventual abatement.
Tackling those environmental issues was what held up any construction or use for the past 12 years, Armbruster said.
“When you’re doing it for free, for all practical purposes, through grants and that kind of stuff, it takes time,” he said. “If we were to expend the money to do it, I don’t know exactly how much Phase I would be or Phase II, but when you don’t have the funds to do those things and if you stay focused you’re going to be able to get grants — which we were able to do — and then you spend the money to actually do the clean up or actually put a roof on.”
Phase I was paid for by county and federal grants. Phase II included the abatement, which cost the city $21,000 in 2017. During that process, the insulation was removed from around the pipes, which workers left open to confirm no environmental hazards had been left behind. Inside walls containing asbestos also were removed, leaving behind studs denoting the original layout.
While the city looked at the environmental problems in the building, it also looked at what the building could be. The original plan, when it was bought, is similar to the proposed project now.
In 2006, RWL Architects estimated a remodel would cost $1.8 million. Two years later, Van Dyke Architects estimated it at $2.3 million.
The city has kept up the property, pending its eventual use or sale. It replaced the roof in 2010, costing just over half of the $40,000 allocated for the project. Its windows also were replaced, and radiator heat was switched to natural gas.
“If you didn’t put a roof on it — a building the longer it stays empty and if you don’t maintain it, it’ll just deteriorate and it will die like we die, it just dies a building life,” he said. “So if the city … bought it for the purposes of using it, it made sense to us to, as minimal as possible, keep it alive until you get it to a point where the environmental hazards are gone, bring it back to City Council and let them decided what they want to do because we can’t — as the administration — make those decisions.”
The city also has added to the overall property. The building originally sat on slightly less than an acre, but the city bought 2.16 acres next door, creating 3.15 acres of property. A house, which had been on the 2.16 acre property, was torn down, with the land brought up to environmental standards using state demolition dollars, as the area was considered blighted.
Right now, the old AT&T building is used for storage, housing costumes and sets from the nearby Old Towne Hall Theatre and benches for the Corn Festival. The Fire Department also uses the basement for training, having cut a hole in one of the walls to simulate rescues.
In 2015, Mayor David Gillock offered the building to The LCADA Way as a possible site for a residential drug treatment center. In the midst of the heroin epidemic, and turned down by Lorain’s Zoning Board of Appeals, the nonprofit was searching for an empty building in the county that could house a residential treatment center, including bedrooms, bathrooms and a large kitchen.
That same year, the building was appraised by Buckholz Caldwell & Associates for $280,000 — $220,000 for the building and $60,000 for the original 0.99 acres of land. The additional 2.16 acres were not included in that estimate.
The treatment center did not happen, leaving the building vacant for another three years before this latest proposal.
EMD Studio Inc. is suggesting the building’s original structure be left intact, with all maintenance, HVAC, bathrooms, elevators and additional stairwell be built onto the building in an addition. Artist renderings show a glass building attached to the structure, with further landscaping around it.
“RWL and Van Dyke looked at it from inside. EMD looked at it from the outside,” Armbruster said. “If you have a beautiful building, don’t destroy the inside, build the super structure — the restrooms, the stairwells … the entryway — outside of the building and then have the only penetration, actually where you see it, the doorways are through the windows.”
Existing amenities, like the small bathrooms on the first and second floors, are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Armbruster said, but if plans move through, they would look to keep some of the original marble counters, lights or other items.
The acreage would allow for an expanded parking lot as well. The proposal looks to use the first and second floors, with the basement still up for discussion. If Council moves forward with this proposed renovation, Armbruster estimates the earliest officials could look to move into the space would be 2021.
But no matter the building’s fate, Armbruster said the city will need to look at other ways to mitigate its space issues — and the state of its current buildings. A five-year fix was done in 2004 to City Hall, including remodeling the jail and the police station — but that short-term fix has turned into a 14-year solution to a building originally building in the early 20th century as old Grange Hall. Parks and Recreation, which includes the Senior Center, has a hall made of a double-wide modular home added on — so there are no right answers to where the city starts on its renovations, he said.
If Council decides not to renovate the AT&T building, Armbruster said, he suggests selling it.
“It made no difference where it started, it had to start someplace. So if you did City Hall, people would question ‘You own the AT&T building, you should have done it there.’ if you start at the AT&T building, ‘Well, why aren’t you doing it at City Hall?’ There is no right answer in politics, in today’s world you try to move forward, you try to advance and if you’re not going to use that building, then sell the building to someone else and make it an office building or raze it or get rid of it — but don’t have it an asset to the community that is just sitting there and not being used.”