Lofty notion

The Globe Mills project proves old buildings don’t have to die, they can be rehabilitated

Get thee to a granary: The majestic Globe Mills rises above Alkali Flat.

Get thee to a granary: The majestic Globe Mills rises above Alkali Flat.

Photo courtesy of Applied Architecture

It’s hard to miss the Globe Mills building. Coming into downtown on 12th Street from Highway 160, you emerge from the underpass south of North B Street, and its hulking presence immediately looms on your right.

The old grain mill was originally erected between 1908 and 1914 by Pioneer Mills before being acquired by San Francisco-based Globe Mills in 1919. Pillsbury bought the mill after World War II and shuttered it in 1965. The property—a complex of structures that includes the mill as well as towering, cylindrical grain silos—slid into decay. By the turn of the century, Globe Mills was little more than an eyesore.

But one person’s dilapidated mess can be another person’s vibrant totem of urban visual funk. In Globe Mills, architect Michael Frank Malinowski found just the sort of “iconic ruin” he’d been searching for, a powerful edifice with plenty of the kind of character that separates cities that value the past from cities that don’t.

Malinowski’s design work has since transformed Globe Mills from decomposing concrete albatross into a model of urban renewal, but getting there wasn’t easy. “It was just a nightmare piece of property,” he said. “The liens on it alone were over a million bucks.”

The architect, along with a few other observers, was intrigued by the possibilities of the derelict building, whose twilight years included several fires along with other indignities. Like an obsessive car freak who’d spotted a vintage Jaguar rusting under a tarp in someone’s driveway, Malinowski periodically checked out the building and began dreaming of the logistics involved in restoring it, running into people like contractor Bruce Booher, who also had fallen under the Globe Mills’ spell, and developer Skip Rosenbloom, who would perform the heavy lifting required to get banks and other parties to sign off on pending claims so that restoration could proceed.

The result, which opened in October 2008, is a quietly stunning gem of urban renewal, one that hits many desired bullet points—it reclaims a brownfield, or abandoned industrial site; it employs energy-efficient, green-building technologies; it’s sited adjacent to light rail; it provides infill development to its Alkali Flat neighborhood, with a mix of affordable senior housing and market-rate lofts that exceed 150 units per acre; it converts an abandoned but historic building to new uses; it used a partnership of public and private funding to make that happen.

Walking into the lobby of the grain mill, the bottom of one of the 1940-era concrete silos is visible. Overhead, old metal funnels have been converted to lighting fixtures, like something from the film Brazil; underneath, a glass floor reveals an old gear assembly. The eastern side of this building contains six floors of market-rate lofts; the 112 senior apartments are located in two new buildings, one on the corner of 12th and C streets, the other attached to the north edge of the old mill on 11th Street.

The lofts themselves are large, high-ceilinged studios or one-bedroom flats with exposed concrete walls, giving off a warm gray industrial vibe one might find in sci-fi computer games like Half-Life. They’re not for everyone, but I wouldn’t mind living in one. Inside one model, a workman assembled furnishings from Ikea, which worked well with the austere surroundings.

“These are real lofts,” Booher stated. “Those other ‘lofts’ around town are just apartments with higher rents.”

At press time, 20 of Globe Mills’ 31 lofts were occupied.

Atop the concrete silos is the head house, which has been converted to a large lounge area with a billiards table, couches, flat-screen TV and other amenities. The view of the city to the south and the railroad yards to the west is remarkable, but from the rooftop above it’s breathtaking, all open sky save for the tower containing two “ghost floors,” left undeveloped because the city partnership, with Rosenbloom and developer Cyrus Youssefi, would only cover the first six floors.

We descended the stairwell from the head house to a laundry room shared with one of the senior units. Outside, Malinowski flipped a switch, and a waterfall began cascading down a wall. “Trying to create some character here,” he said. “Again, to not have it be too soft—this is an industrial site.”