SOUTH BEND – A casual observer couldn’t tell from the outside, but major work is underway inside the massive former Studebaker Corp. assembly plant that provides a backdrop to downtown’s southern skyline.
Hardwood floorboards from nearly a century ago are being pulled up for reuse, while elsewhere in the vacant building, workers behind sealed temporary walls are carefully removing peeling lead-based paint. Asbestos removal and much of the PCB removal is complete.
When that work is done, what will be left is 800,000 square feet of open space within the steel-reinforced concrete building complex.
That’s where businessman Kevin Smith plans to craft his next venture: expansion of his Union Station Technology Center high-tech hub that has long operated in the former city train station on South Street.
"You can’t ignore your heritage. You have to reclaim it," Smith said as he walked through the old assembly plant on a recent cold morning. "We need to give our community the right to believe in ourselves."
Smith believes so much that he’s already invested about $9.7 million on the project, and he expects to spend in excess of $17.5 million.
Auto production in the complex shut down in December 1963, a few weeks after Studebaker Corp. announced it would close the South Bend factory. In the decades since, the unheated cavernous structure had been mostly used for leased storage of automobiles, boats and industrial supplies.
Smith describes his vision for the renovated complex: offices and other work spaces taking up much of the six-story building and adjacent two-story south building; residential condos with "green roof" patios on the top floor of the main building; secure data storage in the west section of that building; and commercial and restaurant space on the first floor of the south building. The complex will include an auditorium and an early childhood center, he said.
Large amounts of heat produced by the supercomputers in the data storage area will be used to heat the building, he said.
"Even if you’re standing in the center of the building, you won’t be more than 50 feet away from natural light," Smith said.
Most of the original glass windows will have to be replaced, but the industrial look will remain.
A large courtyard exists between the buildings, created when the blizzard of 1978 caused a partial roof collapse.
That courtyard is slated to become a glass-topped atrium, filled with plants and warmed by heat from the computers.
"There could be about 3,000 people working here," Smith said. He said it’s a project that will take about 10 years.
He’s working on renovation designs with Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, a large architectural and design firm in Chicago that does work around the globe and focuses on sustainable projects. Smith hopes the building may have its first tenant by the end of 2015.
The former Studebaker complex for years has been called Ivy Tower, but Smith says a new name will be selected as the renovation proceeds.
The city of South Bend is contributing about $7.9 million to the project: $4.38 million for remediation and about $3.5 million to create a parking lot to the south, move utilities and make other infrastructure improvements. The funds are from the airport tax-increment finance district.
"There have been delays because of the weather," said Brock Zeeb, the city’s director of economic resources. The paint removal is taking longer than expected because the process uses water, which complicates the work in the frigid temperatures of the unheated building, he said.
One surprise workers came across was about 100 55-gallon barrels of hazardous materials – oil- or lubricant-based liquids – that were found in the building’s basement, left when Studebaker ceased auto production there a half-century ago, Zeeb said. The city paid about $26,838 for safe removal and disposal.
Remediation work is expected to be complete by late summer, and the parking lot likely will be constructed in the fall, Zeeb said.
Smith will be able to start work on the interior building improvements by late August.
The assembly plant and three nearby buildings – the former Studebaker Administration Building, Union Station and Vandalia Depot – have been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.