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Design Digest: Architectural Alliance

Brent Warren Brent Warren Design Digest: Architectural Alliance
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If you’ve been following the latest wave of development in the Short North, you’ve probably noticed Architectural Alliance’s name popping up with more and more frequency. The local firm has been around for over 35 years, but has recently raised their profile with a string of successful urban projects, many of them along the High Street corridor – The Hub, the Fireproof Building, the new Donatos restaurant and offices, and the Jeffrey Park apartments are some of their more recent designs.

Brad Parish and Mike Fitzpatrick recently sat down with Columbus Underground for the latest in our ongoing Design Digest series. The conversation ranged widely – from Fitzpatrick’s early days working at future redevelopment sites like Timken and Jeffrey, to the origins of Brewers Yard, an early urban infill project that in many ways got the ball rolling for that type of development in Columbus.

CU: Can you start with a brief history of the firm, how you got started?

Mike Fitzpatrick: Well, I got out of OSU in 1967, and three years later I was allowed to take the test, so I took it and passed it and thought, gee now what do I do? So I started in business, in a partnership. Once I got busy, the very first person I hired was John Oney. He was the only person I had ever interviewed. I set my pencil down, I said man, this guy is great – his dad was a concrete masonry contractor, I grew up in a construction family…he was a lot like me. I said take off your coat, here’s your desk, let’s go work. That was 1972 and he’s still here.

CU: That was here in Columbus?

MF: Yes. Columbus is a very nurturing area for small, independent business. I’m sure you’re aware of all of the national companies that were spawned here. Our business opportunities came from people who said, you can talk to these guys, these guys will listen.

We did work for people who had an objective and wanted a fair price, and when they got out in the construction world they wanted to achieve something that had design excellence, but it wasn’t some memorial to the architect, it was a means to their ends. And we kept that philosophy. Now, jumping ahead, Brad (Parish) came up with three words – ‘think, create, do.’ Brad comes from the same mold of John Oney.

Brad Parish: My father was a subcontractor. He was a blue collar guy, and we were a blue collar family… you know, get your hands dirty, do it yourself and get it done, faster and better, so that’s kind of where I was brought up as well. And it fits right along with what Mike and John are all about. So the three of us have really jelled together. I’ve been here since 2004, and kind of risen through the ranks at the office, and it’s been a really nice partnership.

MF: Brad’s the future of Architectural Alliance, with the same mindset and the same plan. People love working for him because he listens to what they say and treats them with respect. And in this day of emails, he’s good really communicating.

So as I go out to pasture, and John follows me, this is the guy who’s going to run the show. He’s got a really great nucleus of people here who all share the same idea. We’re in business to help our clients achieve their visions.

CU: Can you talk a little about the connections ArchAll has to the construction and the development side, and how that was developed.

MF: Well, this partnership I was in – initially, back in the 70’s – I could see that it was on shaky ground. I had no business school background, and it just seemed to be more risk than reward. So I went in-house, with my favorite client at the time, a developer, for a couple of years with him. One day I would be out running a concrete crew, the next day I might be on a plane going to Atlanta to negotiate a loan from a bank. I learned like a masters degree equivalent on business in-house with this developer.

In 1975 then, I went back out on my own, and that’s when we did our first auto dealership – now there’s America’s last cowboys, and every one of them is so psyched up, and so fun to work with. Every one is an individualist. Len Immke was the number two stock holder of Wendy’s, Ricart drove in the demolition derby. We fit into that mold because we listened to what their individual goals were, and we reacted by bending over backwards in the direction of achieving those goals with a design that worked, that functionally fit with how they ran their business. Some of these guys were a little difficult, Immke had a reputation for suing architects…but he loved us.

As the economy changed with time, we adapted with it – we went through a period where we did retail stores for Quality Farm and Fleet, all over the Midwest, helped them buy land, analyze locations. And about the time they got saturated – they went from 19 to 44 stores – we doubled their distribution center in Findlay, Ohio. And we’re learning things, that the same format worked – it’s about listening. And the auto people kept finding us, and coming to us. And that work still continues to this day.. Brad has worked with MAG out in Dublin.

You asked about development – anybody that thinks they can get good at something in architecture, and just keep on doing it, they’re in for a big shock, because everything changes. Technology, materials, code, people’s desires. And if you can’t see it and adapt to it, you hit a wall. The world offers these opportunities, and you have to be alert enough to say, hey, right now it looks like this is going to be what we should adapt to.

We went through a period, in one of these slow-downs, where we did Parade of Homes houses – we never did houses before, but we had to, just to keep the team together, and it actually benefited us, because we learned a lot about those little nuances on the interior, instead of just pounding out warehouses and commercial buildings.

We had an opportunity to design the first buildings for the first Japanese company to come into Ohio to serve Honda; Stanely Electric in London, Ohio. And we did other work with Japanese companies, but when their economy went down, that’s about the time we got into the real developing world, which brings in the Short North.

We did things with Wagenbrenner – Harrison West, the Columbus Coated Fabrics site – his product was selling right through the great recession, they were filling up. We had great success, and he’s a very conservative developer, he’s measured – he doesn’t jump out and check later if he has a parachute on, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

And my son (Mike Fitzpatrick, President of Elford Development) had graduated from Yale, and he and I had worked and fixed houses up and sold them, and he worked a couple years at Continental, and learned a lot. He went into business with Don Plas, who was a controller at Continental for multifamily. Plas had previously been a Deloitte accountant, so he was the perfect complement to my son, who was the ‘let’s blitz every time, let’s go, let’s go’, so he counterbalanced that.

They did Brewer’s Yard, and we designed it for John W. Wolfe, and it immediately filled up, 303 units, 100 percent occupancy, it’s never been below 98. It’s been very successful, and here’s the key – it looks more expensive than it actually was, and it has a look that isn’t going to become a joke in ten years. It’s not a fad, and I think that more than anything else influenced Wagenbrenner to give us a shot and see what we could do for him.

So my son’s now doing the development – he did the Hubbard Building with us, he’s done the Fireproof Building with a guy he used to play basketball with on Sunday nights. They got to be buddies, and that relationship led to the opportunity to turn the paper warehouse into a revenue producing machine.

Again, that’s a successful project – all filled up. Nobody gives you much credit if you do something that looks beautiful and you get a plaque for it and it’s written up in the magazines, if it wasn’t also successful. If you can get both, great, but your clients want to be popular at the bank.

So those are all little steps on the road, and when that happens then other people say, we think you guys are pretty good at what you’re doing, so along comes Pete Edwards. Now, the Edwards family was well known in Columbus, going back to the J.T. Edwards Company. J.T. Edwards, Jr. was one of my dad’s best friends, and they would go fishing every summer.

Pete Edwards was a client – I worked for Trott and Bean when I first got out, I was like the fifth guy they hired, they ended up with like 140 people, a very successful firm…they did the convention center. Pete Edwards was one of their clients at that time, when I’m still very wet behind the ears, and so we get a call..

BP: It was about four years ago, they noticed the work we did on Harrison Park with Wagonbrenner, and Pete turned to a couple of his associates and said, ‘who’s doing that? Get them.’ So that’s where we came into the picture – we talked, heard some war stories from the Trott and Bean days. It was an interesting interview process, to hear some of these stories, being a younger guy in the profession.

MF: And Pete’s like 81 years old at the time, still going to work every day. And his staff is a high caliber group. He’s got the finances to do things right, he isn’t trying to leverage everything and use other people’s money. And he wants excellence. When you know where you stand, and when you’re part of a dialogue with people like that, it’s just great to be part of a winning team.

And that’s the kind of thing we’ve done. I think my son has recognized that that’s the kind of guy that succeeds in the development business. You can’t just go out and see an empty lot and say let’s do this…there has to be a reason, and you have to have a vision that you explain to everybody involved. Everybody has to be looking for the same work of art, and the banker has to also be satisfied that that work of art is for real.

BP: And that’s consistent with all of our clients; Wagenbrenner is the same way, and with Jeffrey park exploding at this point, it’s an exciting time for that area.

MF: And how long did that place sit? I worked construction at Jeffrey when I was in college, I broke concrete there. I also worked at Timken, and the butter factory, which is where Harrison Park is, I worked there at least two summers. It’s interesting to have lived long enough to have experienced those heavy-duty, 1920’s-type industries, and then be a part of rehabbing them like what’s going on now.

CLICK HERE FOR PAGE TWO OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH ARCHITECTURAL ALLIANCE

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