Projects could indicate comeback
Two years ago, Randy Green was thinking about buying a building to remodel in the core area of downtown along 11th Avenue.
He’s glad he didn’t, having turned his attention instead to a more outlying area of downtown – on Ninth Street off Chestnut Avenue.
The Chestnut Avenue area is where the greatest potential is, because there’s more ground, less restrictive patterns of existing development and more projects recently done, in the works or likely to happen, according to Green, who is creating three market-rent apartments targeting young professionals in the former Altoona Artificial Limb and Appliance building.
“We’re down here and kind of in on it,” Green said, adding that he thinks the area has the potential to become downtown’s equivalent to the 17th Street corridor, where his family operates Solarshield Inc.
The development energy is in the Chestnut Avenue area, rather than on “old 11th Avenue,” because there’s more room, and the buildings on 11th are narrow, far deeper than convenient and “sandwiched together,” making it difficult to have side windows, he said.
Green’s project is one of several recent or ongoing efforts that is creating a kind of renaissance downtown – including the 11th Avenue corridor, despite Green’s misgivings about that area, according to Patrick Miller, CEO of the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp.
One of the keys to fulfilling its promise is a nearly completed consultant’s study to determine whether it’s feasible for property owners to create market housing downtown.
For many of the buildings, the study predicts a funding gap between amounts of rent owners could charge and the costs of rehabilitation – a gap that owners’ sweat equity, local loans and grants may need to fill, Miller said recently.
Out on a limb
Green, developer of the former Artificial Limb building, was its caretaker for three years, arranging to buy it from the owner before the owner’s death last year, after which the family honored the sale arrangement.
“Once I acquired it, I could stop worrying,” he said.
He plans to charge $750 a month, including gas and water, and hopes the apartments attract employees of UPMC Altoona or the Altoona Center for Nursing Care.
Fiore’s project and other local improvements should increase the appeal, he hopes.
So should the style of the renovation, he said.
“I’m building it industrial,” he said.
He’ll leave the bricks exposed in strategic areas, trading loss of a little heat for the “industrial” look, making up for the heat loss with extra insulation in other areas.
“You pick your spots,” he said.
He’ll use brick veneer for the industrial look in other places where it’s not practical to actually expose the inside of the exterior walls.
Other industrial elements include 10-foot ceilings and a working freight elevator tenants can use to transport furniture between floors.
It will be expensive to keep the elevator inspected and licensed, so he plans to be present when it’s used, Green said.
He’ll provide private parking out back, a feature that’s key to making the enterprise work, he said.
Total cost of the project will be about $235,000, including acquisition costs.
He’s borrowing the bulk of the money privately, although he obtained a facade loan from Altoona-Blair County Development Corp.
He expects to be finished in August.
Fiore’s museum will be his “man-cave,” said Pete Seilhamer of L.S. Fiore Inc., the renovation job supervisor.
The building is four stories, poured concrete, brick-cased, built around 1930s as a Buick dealership, according to Seilhamer.
Fiore is returning it to its original use, sort of.
He’s renovating the first two floors for now.
He’ll display the cars – 19 of his 39 – on the first floor.
He’ll try to create the illusion of a stroll down a nighttime street into the dawn.
The “street” will be the length of the floor from front to back, the “sky” will be the ceiling painted deep blue with stars and moon by subcontractor and artist Michael Allison, owner of Studio EFX.
At the end of the stroll, toward the back of the building, the sun is rising.
All but two of Fiore’s cars are English – Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Jaguars, Seilhamer said.
The other two are Thunderbirds.
On the face of a mezzanine wall is a logo: LCCC – Lenny’s Classic Car Collection.
“Welcome to our garage,” the wall reads.
The second floor will be for restorations of new entries to the collection.
Fiore’s pair of longtime in-house restorationists tear down the cars so no part is connected to another part, according to Seilhamer.
“They tear it down to nothing,” Seilhamer said.
Workers have already installed lifting equipment – a rotisserie – that can swing a chassis around so a welder can work at eye level on any part.
There’s a painting room with galvanized walls.
Painting takes eight months, because of repeated coats.
It leaves a finish that gives the impression “you can reach down in,” said Seilhamer, with a gesture suggesting he’s about ready to plunge his hand into a barrel.
There’s a “bead” blasting room where workers will remove rust from parts as small as individual screws to reveal stamped brand markings whose legibility is critical to avoiding deductions at competitive shows, Seilhamer said.
There’s a “cat room,” where Fiore’s two cats will live, to guarantee there won’t be mice to gnaw on ignition wires or leather seats costing thousands of dollars to replace.
Once restored, Fiore’s cars never experience water again, Seilhamer said.
Not only do they not go out in the rain, they don’t even get washed.
They get cleaned instead with feather dusters, including on the undersides, Seilhamer said.
The second-floor kitchen and bathrooms will have half-inch thick marble tiles.
The bait that lured Fiore to the building was actually a pair of cars – Jaguars – that remain under cover on the fourth floor, Seilhamer said.
One is a red hard top, 1967.
The other – the real prize – is a copper-colored 1966 convertible.
They’ll get restored eventually in the place to which they drew a man well-positioned to bring them back to their original glory.
On the first floor last week, mason Dave Hollen was casing an interior wall with Chinese-quarried fieldstone veneer.
He trims most of the stones to make the slim joints between them line up true.
Hollen has worked exclusively for Fiore for years, mostly at Fiore’s house – almost like a medieval artisan for a noble patron.
He regards his masonry work with reverence.
“I have a bad habit,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to be better.”
He’d have loved to have done God’s labor on the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe.
Fiore accepts his suggestions, including construction of elaborate fountains on his property.
Nearby, a room awaits delivery of a Texas-built, dark-finished bar, complete with back-wall apparatus, designed to replicate those of an English pub – along with a similarly appointed billiards table.
There will be oak flooring in the big freight elevator.
Fiore is a generous man, said Seilhamer, who has worked for his construction company for decades, beginning with Lenny’s father, the original Leonard and late founder of the firm.
Seilhamer can get away with things.
When he and Lenny discussed dressing up the big concrete beams that cut across the first-floor “sky,” on Seilhamer said he could handle duplicating a promising treatment.
Fiore was satisfied with Seilhamer’s work, which included screwing two-by-fours into the bottom of the beams along the edges, producing a recess that created a paneled effect, after an application of plaster and paint.
Fiore gave the OK to try a couple more beams, but Seilhamer took the liberty of ordering enough material to finish them all.
Fiore accepted that in good humor.
The boss is in Florida, and a few days ago spoke to Seilhamer by phone.
“Bring me some oranges when you come back,” Seilhamer said offhandedly.
A couple of days later, long before Fiore was due, a big box arrived, full of oranges.
Eventually, the museum will become public, if only after Fiore is gone, Seilhamer predicted.
Fiore doesn’t have children, he said.
“I think he wants this to be his legacy,” Seilhamer said.
Sheri Johnson, founder of The Beacon, never had a business before.
“I’m nervous and excited,” she said. “But I’m more excited.”
She came to Altoona a few years ago when her husband, the Rev. Gregory Johnson, took over Second Avenue United Methodist Church.
She’s a respiratory therapist by profession but couldn’t find a job in that field.
So she’s fulfilling an ambition that’s she’s harbored for 25 years.
“This is an opportunity to live my passion out,” she said. “I’m a creative spirit.”
There’s both a store for items and a studio for design.
She’s been getting shop customers who stopped by expecting to buy candy.
She lined up two design consultations Thursday.
“I like taking something and making it into something better,” she said.
She’d like potential clients not to assume her services are not for them.
“It’s for anyone on any budget,” she said. “I don’t believe good design is just for the rich.”
A transition committee of Explore Altoona took charge of checking out potential locations when the organization was planning its most recently move, according to Mark Ickes, the organization’s executive director.
The committee selected five finalist sites, both downtown and suburban.
It settled on Brett Central Court because of the cost, accessibility and the size of the space, Ickes said.
It’s worked out.
Downtown is “not only a hub for the ‘meds and eds” but also a key location, which holds great potential as a destination arts, cultural and heritage scene,” he said.
The Railroaders Memorial Museum, the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, the Heritage Discovery Center and the performing arts organizations that use the Mishler help make it so, he said.
It’s a scene that young adults and “educated individuals,” who are members of key “demographics” find engaging and exciting, he said.
“A walkable core business district is always key,” Ickes said.
Making a mark
Bringing his tattoo shop from Ivyside Plaza to downtown has enabled owner Bob Hecker to be “a little more visible,” while continuing to be available to Penn State Altoona students, because the college’s Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence is across the avenue.
He’s a downtown fan but dissatisfied with the way things are.
“It’s a bummer it is like it is,” he said. “There’s so much potential.”
His shop is full of local artifacts.
“It’s more like an antique shop than a tattoo shop,” he said.
He wishes he could make people appreciate the history that’s all around, like he does, and appreciate what can be done to incorporate it in the future of the city.
“It may never get back to what it used to be,” he said. “[But] the historic element is sitting here in front of people, and many seem to be blind to it.”
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.