(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — The City of Erie has been undergoing a so-called renaissance, specifically in its downtown district over the past 20 years or so. Much of that has been spurred by the development of Erie Insurance properties; however, behind the scenes often is one company, largely unknown to the general public.
Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. is a Detroit-based architecture firm that has worked behind the scenes on more than 45,000 projects across the country and abroad over its 125-plus year existence. The company’s specialty is “adaptive reuse,” and they’ve brought those skills to local projects in Erie.
“It’s basically the idea of reusing existing building stock in different ways and creative ways,” said Alan Cobb of Albert Kahn Associates. “We really enjoy when we have an opportunity to renovate, restore and reuse our buildings and the buildings of other architecture firms… It allows you to reuse natural resources in a creative way so we’re not pulling more steel or more aggregate and cement products out of the ground.”
Since 1999, Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. has been working with properties in the City of Erie. Their work began with master planning for Erie Insurance — then it continued with work for office renovations and expansion across the Erie Insurance campus, work on the Thomas Hagen Building, the Erie Insurance Perry Square Building, and further guidance for work in Downtown Erie. In 2017, Albert Kahn Associates worked with Erie Western Port Authority for master planning of the port and Bayfront. Also in 2019 the company was involved in the “visioning” for Erie Bayfront Parkway through Erie Downtown Partnership.
Notably in 2019 the company began work on 12 buildings in four blocks of downtown through the Erie Downtown Development Corporation. Those projects were a mix of buildings that make a downtown a downtown — apartments, the climbing gym, the food hall, a market, retail space, restaurants, and a parking garage to accommodate more than 300 vehicles. That includes the Cashier’s House with its restored and incorporated brickwork. Other projects in that four block area include the Dispatch Building, the Arcade Building, Marlena Place, Park Place, Sherlock’s Building, 5th and State West Building, Wrap Building, a parking structure, Bonnell Building, 10 E. 5th St., and Glass Growers Building.
“Very often, the façade or the building in total has historical value. It has cultural meaning to a region. So we look at those opportunities,” Cobb said. “There is potential state and federal funding to maintain a historic building and keep it intact within a community.”
Having spent so much time working on projects in Erie, Cobb sees the vision for Erie’s future. The anchor of downtown is Perry Square he said.
“There’s a recreation, a life and a culture that exists right in the heart, and Erie’s masterplan was developed around a series of parks that make up the original old downtown of Erie, Pennsylvania,” Cobb said. He compared it to Savannah, Georgia, which was developed around nine parks whereas Erie is developed around six parks. “We’re seeing a real trend to bring the residential back to these medium-sized cities.”
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the general public into accepting a remote work and work-from-home concept, Cobb said. That’s beneficial to a city like Erie.
“Erie has its own unique characteristics… but it’s evolving and transitioning,” Cobb said. What was once a town supported by a workforce largely employed by General Electric is now a diversified workforce employed by UPMC, Gannon University, Mercyhurst, and Penn State Behrend. “There is a shift in the jobs, but they’re ending up being more white collar, higher-end jobs where people want to live in an environment and they’re willing to work remotely and look for a place where they enjoy living and can get to recreation.”
The great lake helps.
“If you have a sailboat 10 minutes from your house and you can walk, how wonderful is that? Our lifestyles are evolving and we’re embracing remote work, and that’s a good thing for cities like Erie,” Cobb said.
City leadership is on the right track, Cobb said. The collaboration between the business sector, the private sector, the public sector, and the local and state governments is essential.
“We’re really seeing that happen with the forward-thinking community in Erie,” Cobb said. “It’s there.”
Comparing Erie’s development to large cities that have seen their own renaissances — such as Seattle, Chicago and Detroit — might not be apples to apples, Cobb said. Those cities had infrastructure needs that required more expense than a smaller city like Erie. A better comparison would be Akron, Ohio, which is undergoing a renaissance of its own, Cobb said.
“Using the scale and still creating the live-work-play lifestyle is the key, while being mindful that you have to keep housing at a reasonable price,” Cobb said. “We’re very cognizant of the price point, and with all of the apartments that we’ve created with the EDDC, there’s a waiting list. People want to live in downtown Erie.”
Before improvement projects were made — improvements that included modernization, bigger windows, and better views in housing units — people were reluctant to live in downtown Erie, Cobb said.
“This is going to be a chain reaction. From what we’re seeing, the market is right right now,” Cobb said. “The financial model is there to bring the housing market back in Downtown Erie.”