A vacant mortuary that's been on the brink of foreclosure for more than a year is now getting a new life as an office and community space.
Architect John Harriss owns the property at 3207 Central Ave. NE. His firm was originally hired to design a condo project at the site.
When sales got off to a slow start, Harriss and a business partner bought the property from the initial developers in 2006 with hopes of improving sales. The condos ultimately failed, and the property has been in financial limbo since 2007.
A green, thrifty renovation is now underway to convert the funeral home into a multi-tenant office building, with Harriss' own architecture firm serving as the anchor tenant.
"We saw an opportunity to take a building that was destined for the landfill and reuse it," Harriss said.
The vision also calls for transforming the former casket showroom into a community meeting space for neighborhood and nonprofit groups.
The renovation is a work in progress, and Harriss said it will continue to be piecemeal project, with work being done as time and money is available.
Green building features already incorporated include energy-saving windows, non-toxic paints and insulation made from recycled blue jeans. Harriss would like to add more ambitious green components later like rooftop solar panels and pervious pavers in the parking lot.
Harriss hopes up to three other organizations will eventually join the architecture firm in building. Shared amenities, such as parking, a kitchenette and conference room, are aimed at making the space appealing as an incubator for design professionals.
The original condo proposal called for a four-story, 30-unit building with a brownstone exterior. Only 20 percent of the units were sold, well short of the 50 percent generally required to begin construction for condos.
When the city's condo market declined, Harriss briefly pursued a mixed-use development with street-level retail shops and apartments above that. Harriss was unable to find investors to back that plan, though.
Harriss' business partner declared personal bankruptcy last year, prompting their lender to intensify pressure for a resolution. Meanwhile, Harriss' architecture firm was laying off employees and struggling to meet obligations as clients suspended projects due to the economy.
"One year ago today it was just an absolute disaster," Harriss said. "It was a dark Christmas."
In a search for inspiration, Harriss began "nesting" at the old funeral home, spending long hours wandering its spaces. He set up a white board and started sketching out concepts that might save his investment.
"The fact that it was a funeral home kind of freaked me out a bit, but I started to feel more comfortable up here," Harriss said.
As the winter days grew longer, so too did the dark lift from around Harriss. The brainstorming and soul-searching led to the office building idea, which his lender supported. State Bank of Delano loaned $50,000 to jump start the renovation, and Harriss spent much of this year working on the space himself.
Harriss Architecture moved into the building in June, working out of boxes in a makeshift office in the former visiting room. They've since converted the old chapel into a finished office space with with about half a dozen work stations.
Harriss plans to share an update on the project with neighborhood residents at the Waite Park Community Council meeting on Nov. 4. He also intends to share a proposal to close 32nd Ave. NE east from Central Avenue to the first alley. Harriss would like to close the section of street and converted the area to a garden or green space.
"We've hardly got an easy path ahead of us," Harriss said, but "I've always stuck with this property. I've always believed in this site."
By Dan Haugen
Come meet John Harriss and hear more about plans to improve the building on 32nd and Central Avenue at the next Waite Park Community Council meeting on November 4. Waite Park Community Council meetings are held on the first Wednesday of each month at 7:00 p.m., in the Waite Park Community Center at 1810 34th Ave. NE. We hope to see you there!