Originally created 05/10/04

Renovations to old buildings revitalize area



ATHENS, Ga. - Joe McCrary wishes he could have saved the second-story wood floors in downtown Athens' old Adcock building. Nearly 2 inches thick, the floors surely would have passed a required fire-delay test, he believes.

But Underwriters Laboratories, which conducts such tests, has never tested that floor type, and an independent test of its fire safety would have cost too much, he said.

So builders did what Athens-Clarke County building codes required for the century-old building, and covered the floors in about 2 inches of fire-retardant cement.

The floors are just one example of what makes it tough to renovate a historic building. There's a constant tension between trying to preserve as many historic features as possible versus modern building codes, explained Mr. McCrary, founder of MDI Construction.

Nobody's complaining about the result, though - not after Mr. McCrary's group saved a building that barely a year ago seemed on the verge of being torn down.

An out-of-town group hoped to buy the Adcock building and adjacent property, raze the buildings, then build a condominium complex designed for University of Georgia sports fans.

That group backed off, however, and instead chose a West Broad Street site for the massive project, which is now under construction.

The old Adcock building, rechristened the Cotton Exchange, has become a good example of historic renovation. Among other local awards, it recently was named the Athens Grow Green Coalition's first Development of the Year.

The developers kept the building's historic facade, preserving it for future generations; helped revitalize downtown Athens' west end with new commercial space; and contributed to limiting sprawl by providing more living space in downtown Athens.

The building's upstairs now houses 17 apartments, said Patrick O'Brien, an Athens real-estate agent who served as chairman of the Grow Green selection committee. All the apartments have been leased.

Besides being all the things that have earned Mr. McCrary and his partners praise, the Cotton Exchange also is looking like a smart investment for them.

The project has cost about $5 million, Mr. McCrary said. The building cost about $1.6 million, and renovations added about $3.4 million to the tab. A big chunk of the renovation work went into the Mia Madonna restaurant space, which occupies about 4,200 of the building's 34,000 square feet.

"We actually spent about two-thirds of what it would have cost to totally rebuild the building," Mr. McCrary said.

Besides Mr. McCrary, partners in the project were Brian Dupree, Wayne Senkbill, Greg Garcia and Melissa Clegg. Ms. Clegg also is a partner in Mia Madonna, the building's anchor tenant.

The restaurant has packed in customers in its first few weeks. That's not entirely a surprise because Ms. Clegg has founded or helped found some of Athens' most successful restaurants, including the Last Resort Grill just across Hull Street from Mia Madonna and East Broad Street's East West Bistro.

She said she has never felt that the partners were taking much of a risk in the project.

After walking by the building almost daily for the past 14 years as she worked at the Last Resort Grill, Ms. Clegg had come to appreciate its potential, and the fact that it's downtown.

"Commercial space is a limited resource (in the downtown area), and the university is never leaving. To me, downtown Athens is not a lot of risk," she said. The UGA campus extends to within a few blocks of the Cotton Exchange.

The two-story building has housed numerous businesses during the years, including a furniture store, a candy factory, a sewing factory and a farmer's market, Mr. McCrary said.

When workers began renovations, they found hundreds of sewing machines upstairs, and chicken coops and milking apparatus for dairy cows in a basement that has now been converted to a 25-space parking area.

The ground floor is divided into spaces for eight retail businesses, including the Mia Madonna space.

Four of the eight spaces are leased, one by Hot Corner Coffee, which, like Mia Madonna, is doing brisk business in its first weeks.

"We've had all the right kinds of problems" like running out of supplies and not having enough seats for customers, said Ron Shadix, a partner and manager in the coffee shop.

The project has also brought attention to a wider revitalization of the once-moribund west end of downtown.

"All the growth in downtown is this way," Mr. Shadix said.