Design Digest: Sullivan Bruck Architects
Although most of our Design Digest interviews are conducted by email, we thought we would try something different this time, sitting down in late July for an in-person chat with Joseph Sullivan, principal of Sullivan Bruck Architects.
The result is a free-flowing discussion of the firm’s work, its involvement in a groundbreaking urban apartment project, and Sullivan’s thoughts on the improved quality of design in Columbus. The conversation started with a discussion of what Sullivan calls one of his passions – improving transportation options in Columbus (he sits on the board of Transit Columbus).
Q: Something I always like to ask in these Design Digest interviews is, “What does Columbus need?” And it’s interesting, from the design community, it’s pretty unanimous; we need better transportation.
A: I think the design community gets it, because we understand the need for a pedestrian environment. Density actually creates that, but any new development is limited by transportation. If you can’t accommodate parking, then that starts to define the situation and its interesting as you see areas of Columbus that have really taken off, certainly Victorian Village, Italian Village, German Village, the challenge has become parking.
Neighbors are concerned – the redevelopment has improved their property values, but everyone’s concerned about ‘where am I going to park my car?’ We’ve made strides – just in the last year, when you look at bike-sharing, and Car2Go, and the downtown circulator, and all those things, I think, as people get a taste of alternatives, they’re more likely to think that’s a good thing.
Q: Have you followed COTA’s plans for their Transit System Review?
A: I’m aware generally of how its changing – it certainly makes sense, for alternative transit to work, there can’t be a huge disconnect between driving a car and taking mass transit. I think COTA’s really on the right track, they’re well-managed, and they’ve done a lot with the funding they have. It’s one of the things that I feel you can only really accomplish in the public sector – it takes private-public partnerships, but it has to be a public entity, and those are hard to get the support.
Q: Can you talk a little about the history of Sullivan Bruck?
A: There have been a lot of changes – we celebrated our 30th year last year, we’re just 31 this month. We started as a very small suburban practice, and most of our work was residential – we saw a need for better residential design. We didn’t really see many firms that looked at that and said, ‘we want to make a specialty out of that’ – because very often, residential work is a stepping stone to something else. So when firms are very young and inexperienced, and therefore possibly more affordable, then developers and so forth will hire them and when they become more seasoned they move on to other things.
We just saw a market opportunity – we started, in 1983, just coming out of the recession, and we kind of hit it on an upswing, had some contacts in the development community, and did a few residential projects, and that’s been a main-stay of our work. And we’ve continued to always have a component of residential work. I think we’ve influenced the Central Ohio market – not only with our work, but with firms that have originated through our company…there are several residential firms that we spawned.
I think the quality of design work today in Columbus is better than it’s ever been, and I think that’s a testament to the quality of firms that we have today. You can always get better, but I think some of the outgrowth of the modern movement in the 60s and 70s is that we unfortunately had a lot of really bad things; we didn’t value history, we tore down a lot of buildings. And it’s not that modern architecture is bad, it’s just that it really functions better in concert with historic work. And I think that it’s been really interesting to see the resurgence in the urban core.
Q: So you are located Downtown now?
A: We moved downtown in the early 90s, and our first project downtown was Victorian Gate in the Short North. And that was really the project that kind of ignited the flame of redevelopment in the Short North. There was just a big gap…the Short North was starting to have a little bit of the arts involvement with the Gallery Hop, but there wasn’t a lot of new development, and I think an apartment project like that, because it was large enough to have some impact, it started to push rents a little bit.
At that time a lot of the challenge was, you couldn’t develop projects and make them economically viable, so that particular project, we spent virtually every dime we had on the exterior. Our thinking was that the interiors could be updated in the future, and I think that happened – because the project ended up being converted into condominiums, and those new buyers then re-invested in the interiors.
Q: When you were doing Victorian Gate, because there wasn’t much like that in Columbus at the time, were you looking at other places where that kind of urban infill project was happening?
A: We really didn’t, we understood that we had to come up with something that was economical to build. That project was a wood-frame project, in an urban area, you wouldn’t know that from the exterior. We used a lot of the knowledge we had gained in doing developer-related apartment projects, to try and design something that was contextual to the environment.
And it was very intentional, trying to deal with the different characteristics, like fronting on Goodale Park on one side, and the other side fronting High Street, which had to relate to the retail component on High. Probably the single most important piece of that was creating the new pedestrian street through the middle of the project. The city worked with us relative to a reduced parking requirement for that – we ended up really with one space per bedroom – and we did parking sharing with on-street parking so we didn’t have to create a big parking lot. That project actually helped jump-start future development.
Q: You’re involved with a number of more recent downtown projects – how have things changed since Victorian Gate?
A: Well, the economics are different. When we did Flats on Vine, it set new records for rent per square foot, and it took a developer like Nationwide, who could be patient in the sense of their return, to develop that. Once it was completed and started to absorb, there was such a demand, that they were able to raise rents, and that then made other projects viable.
That was the first podium project, with parking underneath. It’s a sloping site, and we wanted to hide the parking, so it became practical to create an elevator building. That’s kind of an expensive undertaking, yet we figure out a way to reconcile the structural grid of units above with a parking grid. And came up with an economical way to build that. We’ve since developed I think better solutions than what we proposed there, but that started the process, and now we’ve seen several buildings that have parking underneath in the urban context, and so that allows you to get the appropriate density, and to get something that feels urban.
Q: What do you see for the future of Downtown and urban development in Columbus? You mentioned before the importance of transit..
A: I think transit is going to be a game-changer, I think things like the downtown circulator will really help. Once you can get transit, if you look at historic examples, any place around the transit stop has just exploded with development, and it allows the critical mass of housing that’s needed to support retail and restaurants and the other amenities that become part of that walkable environment.
So we’ve got some of that, but they’re in nodes, and they’re somewhat separated, and transit will link those, and once that happens I think we’ll get an infill of the parts in-between. There’s no question in my mind that the market, which has two segments – the young millennials that want to live in the urban environment, in a walkable community, and the baby-boomer empty-nesters that decide they want to downsize into a walkable environment. So it’s very eclectic, and when you look at the transformation from projects like Neighborhood Launch – which came not just from the architecture, it was the decision to change Gay Street to two-ways, and the landscaped median, and the street trees – to me, that’s a remarkable transformation.
Q: There is always lots of talk in Columbus about the importance of public-private partnerships..
A: It’s more expensive to develop in an urban context, and certainly the city benefits when there’s tax-increment financing, tax abatements, and I realize to the public they may wonder why certain developments are getting a tax break, but if that development spurs new development and new jobs and investment, that creates a tax benefit, and it’s a win for everybody.
Its really been, for someone who might have lived in Columbus in the 90’s and come back, it’s a pretty amazing transformation.
Q: You worked on a project recently in Dublin, what are your thoughts on the Bridge Street plans?
A: We have one we’re doing with Casto, in the Bridge Street Corridor District. I think Dublin is on the right track with their plan. It’s a little bit of culture shock, to change from what had been a suburban community that basically was opposed to density, then all of a sudden embrace density, and to start to deal with all the implications of that. There are some growing pains in going through the process, but ultimately, I think it’s going to be very good for Dublin.
Its one of those things, that a couple projects have to get off the ground to create momentum. Our project, and some others, that are in the early planning stages – I think they’re going to happen, and the architectural character is going to be different then the more traditional old-Dublin, especially east of the river. But I think it’ll take enough critical mass – to see a mixture of uses – for the market segment that they’re pursuing…it’ll take a few projects for that to happen.
Q: On your website there’s a concept for the corner of Main and Fourth streets downtown – what can you tell us about that?
A: That was a concept for a client – that’s been ten years ago now. I think something like that may eventually happen, but probably not in the short term. When we did that there was a little bit of a resurgence of that area, and then we hit the recession. But now, with the redevelopment of Columbus Commons, the area is looking up again.
Interestingly enough, we saw that happen with the Julian – it had some stops and starts, different things we were trying, with our client, to get it off the ground, but nothing quite made economic sense. And actually, maybe the silver lining of that project is that it wasn’t developed then, when I think it would have been developed to a lesser standard, because the economics wouldn’t support what we’re doing now.
Now that rents are higher, and with it being put on the National Historic Register, and with the tax credits, it has allowed us to do finishes at a level of quality that we just couldn’t have supported before. It’s really going to be a class-A building, New York-style lofts, something that we’re really excited about – it’ll be pretty spectacular.
Q: Anything exciting on the horizon for Sullivan Bruck?
A: We’re involved in a project in Merion Village right now, the Barrett site, we’re working on that with Homeport. It’s in the conceptual stage, but I think we’ll be meeting with neighborhoods in August, and I think that project will really get kicked off this fall. So we’re excited about that, it’s a really great opportunity – the original school is a wonderful building. Sandvick out of Cleveland is the architect for the historic building, and we’re doing the infill around it.
For more information on Sullivan Bruck, visit www.sbarch.com.
All photos and renderings via Sullivan Bruck.