GBX Group headquarters in the Empire Improvement Building <span class='image-credits'>Bob Perkoski</span>

New GBX Group HQs foreshadow what’s to come in the Superior Arts Improvement District

It’s been about two weeks since the Superior Arts Business Improvement District took effect, which aims to bring economic development and renaissance to the area from Payne Avenue to St. Clair Avenue (between E. 18th Street and E. 26th Street) in the Campus District.

Already, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s Clean and Safe ambassadors have been at work, picking up trash and patrolling the streets. There is an undercurrent of pride running through the city’s historic garment district, led in part by GBX Group (formerly global X), which specializes in managing investor funds for historic renovations.

In March, GBX moved its headquarters from the historic Edwin Hotel at 1303 Prospect Ave. East to the Empire Improvement Building (known to many as the Daffy Dan’s building) at 2101 Superior Ave.

GBX has spent the past 18 months renovating the 1913 Keetch Knitting Mills clothing warehouse and retail outlet. While 100 years ago the building housed heavy, iron sewing machines, operated mostly by women, today GBX has transformed the upper three floors of the five-story building into its state-of-the-art headquarters, with equally-modern office rental space on the lower two floors.


GBX Group in the Empire Improvement Building

The completed GBX renovation effectively marks the beginning of a new era in the Superior Arts District, as GBX officials hope to lead by example with seeing the possibilities in Cleveland’s historic garment district.

“One of the things that was determined early on is that we kind of had to lead the parade,” says David Swentor, GBX’s president of real estate, of the company's intention to spearhead the development in the Superior Arts District. “We had to stick a pole in the ground and rally around it, and that [pole] was this building. It’s been remarkable to have a parade of people coming in, and for the first time, understand the opportunity that is Superior Avenue—looking through these buildings and say, ‘Something like this can be created in the old warehouse space.’ We needed to demonstrate it and prove it first."

Historic renovations with standards

Only two tenants—Crushtone Studios and Daffy’s Dan’s—were in the building when GBX purchased it, so the company facilitated the move of Crushtone Studios from its former 2101 space to the renovated building at 2230 Superior that now houses the collaborative Superior Sound Studios.

Company officials spent nearly two years procuring state and federal historic tax credits, an historic easement, and a grant and loans from JobsOhio for the $12-$14 million project. Additionally, the City of Cleveland provided GBX with tax abatement—even though it’s a commercial building—for the potential jobs created. The company has 40 employees and is adding staff every day.

“We’ve already added probably 15 people since that initial application,” says Swentor. “Two new people start next week, we hired a person yesterday, and we have two more positions open. [From] when we applied for [the credit] until today, the organization has doubled in size, which was the commitment made to get the credit to begin with. It speaks to how much GBX has grown in that period.”

GBX president of community development Antonin Robert says all building renovations were done according to National Park Service’s historic preservation standards, with some give-and-take occurring on both ends. They had to move the entrance from the front to the back of the building in order to meet ADA standards and install a wheelchair ramp.

Robert points out that restoring the historic buildings may be pricy, but it’s worth the cost in preserving the city’s history. “If we razed everything and started from scratch, it would be a lot easier, but you lose that sense of space,” he says. “That element is critical to us.”
 

1920 photo of the Keeetch Knitting bldg. now the Empire Improvement Building

All interior renovation work was done based on old photographs, with Sandvick Architects consulting on the building’s historic preservation, and Vocon serving as interior architect. Krill Construction was the general contractor, while Panzica Construction served as construction manager.

GBX was meticulous in its renovations. “We had to be careful. We couldn’t do drop ceilings near windows, [and] the mechanicals have to be a certain height and distance from the windows,” Robert explains.

He adds that they were able to completely replace the windows and still stay within historic renovation guidelines because there just weren’t that many original windows left: “This building had a handful of original frames, but most of them had been replaced over the years. In this case, they allowed us to replicate them based on the pictures.”

The new windows are clear glass and able to open, which Robert considers the best feature of all. Since the north-facing side of the building has no windows, much of that space is dedicated to mechanical equipment and cabling.

Open and airy layout

Every level of the new GBX offices is designed with an open floor plan, flowing with natural light and conducive to collaboration.

“Our objective here was to create an environment that had all of the 40th floor BP Tower attributes [one of GBX’s former homes], but in a historic building,” explains Robert. To accomplish this, Robert says they “literally gutted the building down to its wood structure.”
 


An open atrium with a center staircase is designed to make employees feel unified, instead of separated by different divisions on different floors.

Also, the office walls don’t extend all the way up to the exposed-beam 15-foot ceilings. “From an historic standards standpoint, they always want you to have either the floors or the ceiling visible,” he explains. “Clearly, we chose the ceilings. That helped us put noise mitigation in all of the floors.”

The original elevator was not up to code, so designers fashioned the old cargo elevator into the main elevator. “They built a shaft within a shaft to be able to replace the old elevator,” says Robert.

A large, metal vintage fishing buoy adorned with GBX’s “X” logo grounds the atrium, and other vintage Cleveland industrial machinery—sourced by Cleveland Art and then fashioned into furniture—serve as bases to tabletops and furniture throughout the meeting rooms.

GBX’s three floors are defined by giant chalkboard murals, painted by Cleveland illustration artist Lisa Quine. The main floor mural depicts information about GBX; the next floor up lists facts about the history of the building; and the top floor mural maps the Superior Arts District.

All work areas are fashioned by Ohio Desk, which provided desks that raise and lower with the push of a button—allowing users to stand up while working or hold impromptu meetings around the workspace. “That has probably been, other than the light in the space, the other aspect that everybody has just loved,” says Robert. “Really, it’s comfort, but it’s just efficiency.”

Open group meeting areas feature interactive screens that can broadcast from any computer and entire walls made of whiteboard material so that employees can collaborate and brainstorm.


GBX Group lunch room

Even the lunchroom is open and airy, with GBX providing lunch meat, snacks, and fresh fruit—not to mention an upscale coffee machine that will brew just about any hot beverage.

“The biggest concern our staff had in terms of the move [was], ‘Where am I going to get my coffee, and where am I going to get my lunch?” Robert recalls. The new machine—chosen by resourceful (and highly caffeinated) employees—takes care of the former, while employees can walk to Artefino for the latter or drive to nearby Slyman’s, Superior Restaurant, Danny’s Deli, or AsiaTown.

A high-tech nod to history

Each of the three floors offers a private meeting space—each themed by a different GBX project. For instance, the Catahoula Room is named for the Catahoula \Hotel in New Orleans; the Julian Room for a project done in Columbus; and the Powerhouse Room as a nod to work GBX and Jacobs Group did to transform the Powerhouse into the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.

On the top floor is the Crown Room—a more relaxed space dedicated to GBX partner Kevin Czerwonka, who passed away in 2016. The room is adorned with a painting by his favorite artist and bottles of Crown Royale, his favorite drink.

Despite being housed in an old structure, GBX has installed state-of-the-art technology throughout the building. From smart lighting to security systems that log who comes in and out to parking access controls, Robert says today’s technology eliminates the need for a front desk.

City view from the Empire Improvement Building
 

On the lower floors, the above-ground basement is used for storage and houses much of the building's mechanical workings, says Robert. The first and second floors have been fitted with the same noise-mitigating membrane, then covered with a thin layer of concrete to level them. The floors will then be covered with wood or carpeting, and the exposed ceilings will be painted.

Robert says they want to leave the spaces a “blank canvas” for potential tenants. They are hoping to fill the second floor with a shorter-term lease tenant, so GBX can use that floor for future expansion.

Setting the pace

Swentor says their project at 2101 Superior has sparked interest in the other buildings GBX owns in the district. In addition to owning 10 buildings, the company also owns five parking lots and helped to develop three other buildings: the Tower Press building across the street at 1900 Superior Ave., the S. Korach Company building at 2400 Superior Ave. (home to Red Space and Hot Cards), and the MT Silver building at 2310-2320 Superior Ave. (which is now 2320 Lofts).

With the completion of the GBX building, the future proposed bike lanes along Superior, and the designation as an arts improvement district, people are starting to take more interest in the neighborhood.

“We’re attracting people from outside of Cleveland to come work here,” GBX’s CEO Drew Sparacia says. “That’s part of the fact that we just yell and scream about how great Cleveland is and, unfortunately, people who live here don’t do it enough. That’s important to us.”

While GBX strives to energize the Superior Arts District, there is one point Robert, Sparacia, and Swentor are clear on: They do not intend to displace current tenants or make rents unaffordable for the many artists and makers who occupy the many old warehouses.

Sparacia cites Superior Sound and Tiny Tots Daycare as two tenants who are critical to the district, and he says GBX plans to keep their rents affordable. He says the same goes for the many artists with studios in the ArtCraft Building, which GBX also owns.

The current tenants are just as important as drawing future tenants, Robert says, in preserving the historical fabric of the Superior Arts District. “Our focus is historic real estate and [how] it creates a sense of place,” he explains. “It usually comes with a culture, traditions, and those are very important. If you take that away, you take away one of the economic factors.”

With proposed improvements to Superior Avenue and the addition of protected bike lanes from E. 55th Street to Public Square, Robert has high hopes for future development. “It’s just a great, great location that has really been overlooked,” he says. “One of the reasons [the district] has [remained] this active has been the artists’ community. So, we’ve had to figure out how to do this while not gentrifying it, trying to keep the artists' community involved in the process.”

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Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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