Architect designs ways to reuse Downtown buildingsWritten by Brandi Barhite | Associate Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Scot Rossi sees potential and usability where most see vacancy and blight. The Toledo architect began his craft designing factories and hospitals, but could easily spend the rest of his career on what he calls “adaptive reuse.”
There is certainly enough to do.
“I found out that there is almost 2 million square feet of unoccupied buildings Downtown. That is a big niche,” said the partner at Rossi & Associates.
“I don’t call myself a historic preservationist. Ninety percent of my clients are private businesspeople. They don’t want to mess with federal grants and tax credits. We are into adaptive reuse and doing smart things to old buildings.”
Rossi was the mastermind behind the Bartley Lofts, which involved converting a concrete warehouse into 50 condos ranging from 1,200 square feet to more than 2,500 square feet with two levels of indoor parking and a rooftop pool.
When he was designing Pizza Papalis, which had been home to Brenda’s Body Shop, some preservationists complained. One of them even said, “Do we really want a pizza place in Downtown?”
Rossi fired back.
“How about I put the stripper pole back in? How would you like that?”
The usually personable Rossi became irritated because they were fighting development. If every building in Downtown had to be historically accurate, hardly anything would get saved, he said.
“There were a lot of people who tried to get in the way and block it.”
But Rossi said the sometimes contentious business of finding new uses for old buildings is worth it. He would rather find a way to reuse a building than knock it down. He can’t talk much about his current project without his client’s permission; however, it involves finding a new use for a Downtown mail center.
“I see a lot of potential in Downtown,” Rossi said. “One of the first buildings I did in Downtown was the Durty Bird. There was a young kid who had a love for that building and he had an inside scoop where the ballpark was going to be. Everyone told him to knock it down and make a parking lot.”
The building should have been condemned, Rossi said. It had sat empty for years and had excessive water damage.
A couple of million dollars later, Durty Bird opened. It also opened Rossi’s eyes to what could become of other empty buildings in Downtown.
“That was the worst-conditioned building I have ever seen and if I can bring that back to life, I see no problem with any building.”
Laying a foundation
Rossi’s dad, Robert, started the company under the name R. A. Rossi, Consulting Engineers in 1960.
The first location was at Dorr Street and Byrne Road. By the early ’70s, the elder Rossi had moved the firm to its current location at 970 S. Byrne Road, in a building he bought and later added onto.
“I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was 8, 9 years old,” Rossi said. “The only time I saw my father was when he dragged me in here. He worked seven days a week. I used to hang around here and he would put me on a drafting board and I would just sit and draw.
“One of his architects, I walked by his office and saw a beautiful rendering, and thought, ‘Boy, that is what I want to do.’”
From the start, Rossi could differentiate between what his dad did as a structural engineer and what the architects did.
“The architects made the building function and aesthetic, and he made them stand up. He designed the beams and columns; we designed the floor plans,” Rossi said.
But he doesn’t consider himself an artist.
“It has never been what I think should be there. It is what the client wants, what plan commission allows, what the building permit allows,” he said. “Every architect should know what the laws and codes are, especially with ADA. You don’t just get to work with a blank sheet of paper.”
Rossi graduated from UT in 1981 with an associate degree in architectural technology and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from The Ohio State University in 1984.
“My father gave every family member the same opportunity: Go to college, become an architect or engineer and then you can share in the ownership and partnership in the firm. My brother Brad and I accomplished that.”
One former professor, Daryl Blanchard, remembers Rossi well.
“He was always a cheerful and happy person. He always seemed to be interested in buildings because his father is a structural engineer. He had grown up around building structures. He was always interested in how buildings were put together.”
Rossi said Rossi & Associates is an unusual partnership because most architects don’t work directly with engineers. They are typically at odds, he said; they think differently.
While Brad said he always wanted to stay in Toledo. Rossi wanted to get out of Toledo. He dreamed of Boston, New York City or Los Angeles. He told architect Bob Martin, founder of the Collaborative, “I don’t want to work for the family.”
“He was the one who talked me into staying in town, because you can become a big fish in a little pond here. It was easier to do what I wanted to do than if I ended up in New York or Boston like a lot of my friends,” Rossi said.
After college, Rossi worked on Whirlpool factories and hospitals, among other local and out-of-state projects.
At that time, he did drawings by hand.
“We have done Dana, Ford and Chrysler. We started out as an industrial firm, but they just don’t build factories here anymore,” he said.
The firm employed 38 people at one time, compared to eight today. Computers changed the business drastically.
“One day our office manager set this monster of a computer on my desk and said, “There you go.”
Older architects often don’t work on computers or know computer-aided design, he said, but nearly everyone who works at Rossi & Associates is an expert in it.
“It was something kind of forced on us. You spend all that time learning something in school and then it is like, ‘Do it this way.’”
The company struggled at first.
“That is one reason the firm dwindled. We had people who couldn’t acclimate. Old-school guys said, ‘I am going to retire, these darn computers.’”
Even today, Rossi does 75 percent of his drawings himself, but he doesn’t sketch something on a piece of paper and hand it to someone.
“I still like to draw by hand and conceptualize by hand. I still like to make models.”
Rossi got into churches as his career progressed, as did his brother who designed St. Joan of Arc and St. Andrew United Methodist.
One of Rossi’s favorite jobs was St. James Church “The Armory,” which seats 2,800 people.
“The space is acoustically perfect. They built it for a shell space and it sat for years and years and years,” Rossi said. “Then they interviewed every architect in town. When they got to me I realized they were going through the phone book. I walked in and every architect had their renderings on the wall.”
The bishop had a huge request: Everyone had to see its stained glass window.
Rossi’s favorite part of working with churches is the committees of people who all have ideas about how it should be designed.
“It is like doing a house for 500 people,” Rossi said. “If you just appease everyone, you are doing the client a disservice. You have to mix it up and not everyone is going to get their way.”
Pastor William James said of The Armory his late father got the project started with Rossi, while he saw it to fruition.
“The goal was to make it more contemporary. Scot saw the vision that we wanted and helped us build a state-of-the-art facility. He knew where we were trying to go and he took that concept and built on it.”
Rossi gets his vision from the client. It is about what they want to do. It is about their problems with the building and how he can solve them.
Whenever possible, he likes to keep the bones of a Downtown building: the overhead door, the brick wall, the exposed structure and the overall industrial look of it.
But again it comes down to what the clients want. Many building owners want energy-efficient windows, while a historic preservationist would recommend taking them out, restoring them and putting them back in.
“Replacing the old windows is a no-brainer to me,” Rossi said.
Often, the building has to be gutted.
“You are getting rid of the mechanical systems that are antiquated — steam boilers in basements and taking care of the areas riddled with asbestos.”
One of the problems he often sees is horse hair in the plaster, which can cause anthrax. That is why Rossi always advises his Downtown clients to hire his “tester guy.”
“If I work in a vacuum and work all by myself, I am not going to be successful. I represent the owner. I hire mechanical and electrical engineers. I help them find the right contractors and subcontractors.”
When he designed Ann Albright’s condo, she opted to keep some of the features of the former mill location.
When the grain was rolling over the wooden wheels, it created a beaded effect on the wood. Albright accented her condo with this wood.
“As much as possible, we try to keep something in the building and do something fun with it,” Albright said.
Rossi is great to work with because he understands what private developers are up against, she said. He also did her Swan Creek Candle Company location, which won a preservation award.
“If you are financing the project yourself, you have to make it work. He understands that the best,” she said. “You can go get money, but then you have to do it their way. Ultimately, I did the numbers on it and you don’t save any money by going after grants. You are better off finding an architect like Scot and making it work.”
Albright said she also likes keeping the bones of the building, leaving the beams and exposing the brick.
“We leave as much as possible of the history of the building within the constraints of present-day codes,” she said.
Some of Rossi’s clients struggle with understanding why they need handicap bathrooms for their restaurants, especially if it is for the third floor. What people don’t realize is that handicap isn’t just a person who needs a wheelchair, he said. Handicapped could mean blind or hearing impaired.
Rossi is direct with his clients.
“This is what the government says you have to. We can fight it. Here is how much money it will cost. We won’t win.”
Diane Keil-Hipp, president of the Warehouse District Association, said finding new uses for old buildings is encouraging but needs oversight. Starting in January, members of the association’s architectural review committee will review proposals for Downtown buildings. Their suggestions will factor into whether developers can get a permit from the City of Toledo.
“We try to be flexible and broad and protect the integrity of the neighborhood. It is a fine line and something you do on a case-by-case basis,” Keil-Hipp said.
“We have some good people on our committee who are broad thinkers and they have invested in the neighborhood themselves and understand, ‘Hey, I am the one forking over the bucks.’”
Ohio Historic Society spokesman Tom Wolf said developers are encouraged to preserve the significant historic aspects of a building, but if developers aren’t using tax credits or grants, they aren’t under any obligation.
He said saving a building can come in many forms and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
“In general, we like to see older buildings reused whenever possible,” he said.
That’s something that works for Rossi — and his clients. He gets some of his best ideas for adaptive reuse when he is at home on his four acres.
Even though he comes into the office every day, it isn’t until he gets home and eats dinner that he can relax and work from his office.
Although building from the ground up is a rare — and coveted — project, he chose not to build his South Toledo house.
“I would go insane. I would get information overload. But when you give me an old house with good bones, well, I know what I can and can’t do. I am in the process of renovating my house for the past 15 years,” he said, laughing.
Rossi has never been married, but has been with the same woman, Karen Dunne, for 27 years. She more than anyone sees his commitment to adaptive reuse. She loves to watch over his shoulder as he works.
Dunne is a manager at Stella’s in Perrysburg, which Rossi also designed.
It’s hard to go anywhere without seeing his touch on something, she said.
She especially loved seeing his satisfaction when the Bartley Lofts were finished.
“I am fascinated to see something he has on paper and then six months to a year later it is standing,” she said. “The thing about Scot is he doesn’t like what he does, he loves what he does.”
That love could save Downtown.
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