Restoration, incubation and the return of the Knapp's Building

In its heyday, the Knapp’s Building was a bustling hub of activity. It was the place for Christmas shopping and a center of movement in downtown Lansing. But for years, the building has sat vacant … an aesthetically pleasing, empty shell, adding to the disconnectedness between downtown and the up-and-coming REO Town.

Recently though, the Knapp’s Building has been given new life. Restored by the Eyde Company to mirror its original appearance, the building is now home to apartments, offices, and, the first of its kind in the area, The Runway fashion incubator.
 
According to Sara Parkinson of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), there has been a huge drive to renovate, façade, and restore the buildings in the downtown area. “It improves the quality of that building when there is a history behind it.”
 
When the Lansing Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) and LEAP first decided there should be an incubator in the building, they weren't sure what kind made sense of the area. After some inquiry, they discovered a burgeoning fashion market in the area, the Knapp’s rich history of retail made the decision easy. They brought on Jeff Henry to bring that vision to life.
 
 
History in Motion
 
Incubators are known for moving businesses forward, helping them grow and spread their wings, so it only seems appropriate that the first fashion incubator in the state resides in a building that will return the favor. “We can’t imagine The Runway being anywhere else,” says Henry, business consultant for The Runway, “It really helps people take the program seriously.” The relationship will be mutual though as The Runway and its retail program will attract people to the building, those that remember the old Knapp's, alongside those who are excited to see new growth in downtown Lansing. 
 
Fashion is all about re-invention, putting a new spin on things and making them fresh. And, according to Lauren Aitch, tenant of The Runway and founder of the “Our Own” brand, that’s exactly what they did with the Knapp’s Building, “It’s a new brand.”
 
That new brand though, is still reminiscent of the old, and those involved in the project thought that was important. While the building could have easily been torn down to make way for a new, more modern building, Jeff Henry thinks the fact that it wasn’t sends an important message. “It shows Lansing that we can regain some luster downtown without rethinking everything.” And now, the building’s art/deco exterior looks modern and fresh. “The building is pretty rad,” he adds.
 
The building’s unique exterior also played a part in the decision to bring it back to life. “The design is highly unusual,” says Mark Clause of the Eyde Co. “There are not many like it left and we wanted to see it preserved.”
 
It's preservation projects like these that, according to Cassandra Nelson, a consultant for Preservation Lansing, will trickle down into the entire community. She says that when people see what can be done to one building, they realize what can be done to others. Fixing these buildings, rather than building new, is more environmentally friendly, more affordable, and creates jobs in the community. Emphasizing the importance of Adaptive Reuse, she stresses that for these older buildings to continue to be useful, they need new uses. “They had to be creative and out of the box to give it a new life. But, now it’s going to attract businesses, residents, traffic, and patronage. Economically it’s a great development.”
 
 
Incubators Equal Growth
 
As an incubator, The Runway’s job is to help businesses grow. It offers the resources a new business, in this case fashion related, requires getting off the ground. Those resources combined with the ability to collaborate with other like-minded creatives are what make incubator spaces so crucial to early-stage businesses. Allie Siarto, founder of the Tiny Human line, who also has another office in East Lansing, knows firsthand the unique edge an incubator space can offer. “The collaboration is great. You just don’t get that camaraderie in a regular office.”
 
Aitch, of Our Own, appreciates the fact that she doesn’t have to go out looking for resources or the programs she needs to easily create designs. “I have access to technology that makes the design process easier,” and that allows her to focus more time on building and growing her business.
 
And while The Runway has the resources to help young businesses grow, the combination of The Knapp’s and this innovative incubator has the potential to also move Lansing forward as a whole.
 
The Runway will not only offer resources to its tenants but also a retail space where they can sell their products and this unique feature is one that many are confident will give downtown Lansing the push it needs. “It’s exciting to have retail back in that space,” says Clause of the Eyde Company, “There will be cool, one of a kind of things that will bring people in (to the area). Retail is the piece downtown Lansing is missing.”
 
Fashion is also a great way to move the entire state forward as Michigan is a state that has always been based on industry. But, it’s an industry that has been pushed away and outsourced, says Henry. He hopes this incubator will help bring it back. Aitch is excited to be a part of that, “Clothing is clothing but if you are helping people move forward, it changes their lives. That’s what industry can do.”
 
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Allison Monroe is the innovation and job news editor for Capital Gains.
 
Photos © Dave Trumpie
 
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
 
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