A group of young businesspeople employ high design to turn an empty warehouse into a vibrant tech hub
By Omar Mouallem | May 2, 2012
Successful as they are at their young ages, 34-year-old entrepreneur Ken Bautista and 24-year-old property manager Devin Pope have a few things to learn, such as to never start a house tour with the basement. Especially when the walls still hold the stench of century-old meat and one side of the room appears to have been blasted with a red substance.
Is it blood?
“There are some things I don’t want to know about,” replied Bautista, who’s made his mark with such high-tech ventures as Rocketfuel Games.
Will it ever be operable? “We have no clue,” said Pope. Their lack of vision for this one space somewhat surprised me, since they have big plans for every other inch of the Mercer Warehouse’s 42,000 square feet.
Built in 1911 just down the street from the 104th Avenue rail station that existed during the manufacturing boom, it’s one of the last remaining warehouses in the district to be reincarnated.
Designed by architect Alfred Merigon Calderon with the simple intent to store local importer John B. Mercer’s goods, its new life is as a start-up hub.
Dozens of fledging companies will launch from desks on the third floor and hope to grow to a size that justifies leasing one of the 10-person offices planned for the second.
But it’s not just the technologists enjoying their first whiff of entrepreneurship; first-time business owners are adding cafes, bars and other services to the eco-system. “I don’t want people to leave this building. We want to keep the entrepreneurial spirit,” said Pope, of Rosehill Property Management.
He, too, is taking a big step with Mercer, and not just because it’s his first major project in the family business (his father, Kelly Pope, has been fixing and leasing downtown buildings throughout its most placid years). Pope is one of four partners in the Mercer Tavern, located on the first floor.
“J.B. Mercer was storing his cigars and liquors here,” said co-partner, Jon Fraser, a former lawyer who’s spent the last two years in property development. “He stored it here and now we’re going to sell it here. I think he’d be proud that we’re bringing the building back to life.”
Fraser and company are quite literally renovating the vast space into a 200-seat high-end bar and restaurant.
Back in March, when we met, he was wearing dust like it’s the new spring line, doing his own carpentry to have it ready by June. He removed his work gloves and mask to talk about the design: “We’re doing a lot to respect the heritage and integrity of the building, playing off the brick and exposed beams. We spent a lot of time getting charred wood back to semi-charred wood, and paint off the brick walls,” he said.
Interior designer Chris Kourouniotis calls it “vintage chic.” The principal of CKDesign Associates said there’s nothing out of a “spec book” for this French Industrial look popular during Prohibition. Vintage fixtures, lighting and sinks from clearing houses and Kijiji comprise its parts.
The shipping-and-receiving holes on the north wall are being turned into garage doors that can be flung open on summer days.
But the best spot in the house will be the J.B. Mercer Room, a full-service meeting space where, Bautista promised, “all the best deals are going to get done.”
CKDesign is carrying some of that industrial ambience across the hall to Roast Coffeehouse + Wine Bar, owned by former Starbucks employee Matt Hall, but it’s “diffusing the cools.” Said Kourouniotis, “They wanted to be a little raw, they wanted that warehouse-slash-factory feel. At the same time, we have to spin it into a hospitality space.” For warmth, he employed leather banquets, chocolate chandeliers and two fireplaces.
On the second floor, you’ll find event planner Maria Feliciani’s first venture, D’lusso, where refinished hardwood floors and chandelirs welcome corporate and wedding clients alike. On the main floor, two florists have opened Fabloomosity.
They all have a similar story – they’re young, eager and ready to leap forward.
“Every tenant that came in appreciated and loved the building for what it was and wanted to bring it back to its natural state,” said Pope, delighted he didn’t have to convince them otherwise.
In November of 2011, he showed it to Bautista, who was shopping around the area for a bigger space for Startup Edmonton, the non-profit he co-founded. The words out of Bautista’s mouth were: “Yup! This is it.”
Standing in the gymnasium-sized chasm on the top floor, Bautista was upbeat about Startup Edmonton‘s 72 desks available for rent and the additional 100 drop-in work spaces; about how the open design will be perfect for the campus-like environment he wants; about why they chipped inches of white paint from the bricks, re-stripped the hardwood floors and restored the wood beams to look like wood again.
“That’s the kind of style of building you want,” he explained.
For what? “Just random collisions of stuff.”
24 Hours at the Mercer
08:30 –Breakfast at Roast Coffeehouse + Wine Bar.* May we suggest the Kick Start oatmeal, a cinnamon, nut, fruit and caramel mélange?
09:00–Get to work at one of 72 desks for rent on the third floor, or one of more than 100 drop-in desks available to members.
11:00–Take your creative downstairs to the graphic designers at Brain-works Media Solutions.
12:30–Lunch at the Mercer Tavern. Chef Dan Gibbons, formerly the sous chef at Joey on Jasper, takes care of the rest.
15:00–Back to Roast for a recharge.* The Coffee of the Week is Verve’s Butcafe, a sweet Rwandan beanwith a tinge of cinnamon.
16:55–Investors just called. They’re “in the neighbourhood” and “interested.” It’s going to be a long day, so run to Fabloomosity to buy flowers for your partnerwhen you get home late.
18:30–Entertain venture capitalists in the J.B. Mercer Room. Hook your laptop to the projector, order some drinks and sell, sell, sell.
20:00–Bring flowers, and good news, home. Sleep.
08:30–Hire D’lusso Event Furnishings for celebration party.