City Looks to Loft Project to Lift Walker’s Point

In the first significant step toward extending the downtown housing boom as far south as Walker’s Point, a Madison developer is proposing to turn a historic warehouse building at 133 W. Oregon St. into 98 loft apartments, most of them moderately priced.

City officials say Gorman & Co.’s $11.5 million project, which will come before the city Plan Commission today, could help spark broader redevelopment of Walker’s Point, an old industrial area south of the thriving Historic Third Ward.

“It’s a great project, and it will raise the visibility of the area,” Mayor John O. Norquist said of the development, which may even include a neon “Walker’s Point” sign on the 96-year-old building’s roof.

“With a lot of neat old buildings, Walker’s Point has the potential to become the next Third Ward,” said Tom Miller, coordination manager in the Department of Public Works. The area has already seen an old tannery converted to offices, and a new, state-of-the-art trade and technical high school will be built there soon.

Tom Capp, Gorman’s director of real-estate development, said the warehouse conversion is a “pioneering project that could kick-start more redevelopment down there.”

With its high ceilings, exposed brick walls and spectacular views of the skyline, the 160,000-square-foot building made an ideal candidate for housing, Capp said. If all goes well, construction would begin by October or November and the first units could open by the fall of 2001.

Built in 1904 and known as the Lindsay-Schulz-Bostrom building, the imposing, red-brick warehouse straddles an entire block on Oregon between Second and First streets and is book-ended by railroad trestles on its north and south sides. Capp said the developers plan to do extensive soundproofing to muffle the noise of trains.

Amenities will include a fitness center, a business center and two interior atriums with gardens. Parking will be underground and on a surface lot nearby.

Capp said 70% of the units will be geared to moderate-income residents, and 30% will be at market rate. Rents will range from $588 for an assisted one-bedroom unit to $1,250 for a market-rate three-bedroom. The financing mix includes conventional sources; federal income-tax credits for affordable housing; and state and federal tax credits for the rehab of historic properties. No city subsidies are involved.

City officials applauded the project’s inclusion of affordable units. Most of the new housing being built downtown – some 1,579 units since 1998 – is upscale and targeted at well-heeled empty nesters and young professionals.

“The people who work downtown are not all doctors, lawyers and dentists,” said Miller. “Some are janitors and clerks, and they deserve a decent place to live, too.”

Julie Penman, commissioner of the Department of City Development, said the Gorman project fits in nicely with the city’s new master plan for the downtown, which calls for housing virtually everywhere.

She also praised the track record of the developers, who have built two new apartment complexes on the city’s northwest side and converted an old toy factory in Sheboygan to apartments.

“These people know what they’re doing,” Penman said. “They realize what a treasure they have and they’ll help show other developers how to take on such challenges.”

With its Romanesque Revival arches, chunky pilasters and creamy, terra-cotta capitals, the Oregon St. warehouse is used mostly for storage now. But it has a storied past. The oldest part of the five-story building, designed by Milwaukeean Charles D. Crane, was constructed in 1904; in 1920, it got a two-story addition.

According to research prepared for its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, the building was the site of important industrial innovations. Among them: threshing equipment and agricultural implements patented by the first owners, Thomas and William Lindsay; and the nation’s first free-floating suspension seats, developed by a subsequent owner, the Bostrom Corp., for use in farm tractors and heavy trucks.