An Interview With Tom Niemeier of SPACE Architects: on moving from Maplewood to The Grove

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Tour de Grove 2011
{the Tour de Grove rolls by SPACE Architects new location in The Grove}

I sat down for an interview with SPACE Architect’s Tom Niemeier Wednesday morning to talk about his firm’s move to The Grove. It’s big news as SPACE will be moving from Maplewood into one of the more forlorn buildings on Manchester Avenue. He was closing on the building later that same day (ed. the closing was completed without a hitch). Here’s what Tom had to say:

nextSTL: What’s SPACE, in 140 characters or fewer? (Tom is a Twitter veteran so this should be easy. You can follow Tom and SPACE @SPACEarchitects.)
Tom: A full-service architecture and design firm specializing in customized design and fabrication services.

nextSTL: Why The Grove?
Tom: First, it gives us the opportunity to purchase square feet and be in an area with an identity, be in a place where we can help build it up and move in the right direction. To purchase in Maplewood, the Central West End or The Loop would be double or triple the cost. In the end our mortgage will be $1,000 less each month than our current lease, we’ll have twice the square feet, be in one location and we own the building!

nextSTL: Where else did you look?
Tom: We looked at the old St. Louis Closet Co. building at Manchester and Big Bend. We offered $950K for that building and the seller came down to $1.1M. There would have been no financial incentives to move there and we would have been $1.5M in debt once we renovated.

nextSTL: Do you know why it’s called “The Grove”?
Tom: Yeah!…Well, I don’t. (ed. Restoration St. Louis and the Gills have branded the neighborhood as “The Grove”. Also Adam’s Grove is one neighborhood within the larger Forest Park Southeast – Tom did know that.)

nextSTL: How did you locate the building?
Tom: We worked with Sansone and were showed a lot of listings. Most of them were horrible. When I first saw this building I wasn’t interested. But (SPACE architect) Mike Benz took a look and said “it’s not a bad building.” We were still early in the search. The building was listed for $325K and against the advice of our realtor we decided to put in a lowball offer of $200K. The seller came back at $220K and we were shocked. We countered with $210K and they agreed. A third partner (in the building ownership) said $215K, and we countered with $212,500. Sold!

nextSTL: What is your renovation budget?
Tom: Our budget without any incentives is $517,000. We’re budgeting $115,000 for FFE (furniture, fixtures and equipment). The brownfield, federal and state historic tax credits, emerging enterprise zone, façade grant, low interest loan from the city and a forgivable loan from the city may add to the budget.

nextSTL: How important were the incentives in your move?
Tom: (The incentives mean) we have low overhead and aren’t burdened with too much debt. We can keep our fees competitive. Also, lighting the building at night, grey water reuse, solar panels and more are now possible.

nextSTL: What would have kept you from moving?
Tom: If our business wasn’t doing as well we would have let the lease expire on one of our spaces and downsized.

nextSTL: Did you know what you were getting into?
Tom: We’ve been involved with historic tax credit applications before, but the other city incentives were new. It became too much for just me and Amy Huff became our point person to keep things in order, to keep things moving.

nextSTL: Best part of the experience so far?
Tom: The most pleasant experience for me is that we’ve felt very welcome by the city. They’ve made the process smooth and accommodating, there hasn’t been a whole lot of red tape. The St. Louis Development Corporation has been awesome.

nextSTL: Worst thing?
Tom: There are so many unknowns, but the worst part has been not being able to start. I like getting things done. It’s tough to wait for the government to do a report. We close today and I’ll probably go over to the building and pull some weeds.

nextSTL: Is everyone at SPACE happy to be moving?
Tom: I’d be lying if I said everyone was fully on board and excited. Some people are concerned with safety and location. We will have gated, secured parking for employees and we’re happy to work with the neighborhood security efforts.

nextSTL: Do you prefer Tibetan or Nepalese cuisine?
Tom: Tibetan (ed. unfortunately for Tom Cafe Everest serves Indian, Korean and Nepalese food)

nextSTL: Your biggest architecture influence?
Tom: My dad, as far as design. He was a nuclear engineer and passed away in 1978. He always has something going on. He had a side business, Eagle Engineering. He also invented a circular pump with colored lights. He drew it. Then he made it. I was fascinated by his drawing table.

nextSTL: Career Choice #2?
Tom: Baseball player. I hurt my arm my senior year in high school and couldn’t play baseball so there were no scholarship offers. (Since becoming an architect) I’ve never thought of doing anything else.

nextSTL: Forest Gump still your favorite movie (per the SPACE website)?
Tom: Yes.

nextSTL: What’s SPACE working on now?
Tom: We’re working on the 64,000 square foot addition to Ranken-Jordan (pediatric children’s hospital) in Maryland Heights.

nextSTL: Anything in The Grove?
Tom: I look at buildings here all the time, every time I drive down the street I say “I’d like to work on that building and that building and that building. I’d like to see more retail development. We need more people walking the streets.

nextSTL: What project would you NOT take?
Tom: That’s tough in this economy. We’ve never been very interested in a project with an owner that has something drawn up and just wants us to sign the documents.

nextSTL: The one place in St. Louis you would like to redesign?
Tom: St. Louis Center. Most of it would be demolition. The sky bridge would be blown up on day one and the green panels would all be gone.

nextSTL: The KMOV story mentioned parties, how would you describe SPACE parties?
Tom: We have a major bash every Cinco de Mayo. We invite everyone we know, 150-200 people. The Grove will be great for this.

nextSTL: Final words?
Tom: We’re excited to move to the city, excited to renovate something that’s an eyesore. We’re really hoping that us being a commercial business that we’ll encourage more diversity in businesses on Manchester. We hope to start work on the building in November at the latest – brownfield credits currently keep us from doing demolition. We plan to be in the building no later than March 2010. We’ll have a party then too.

We’re also methodically documenting the application and renovation process so if anybody wants to figure out all the little things that you go through to purchase, renovate and move into a building like this we’re going to put it out there. The benefit may be having other people see what’s possible, in the Grove or elsewhere.
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Tom and SPACE Architects were recently featured on KMOV’s Good New for a Change segment:

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