In the slow, steady rebound of Main Street, a former midtown factory has taken a not-unusual path from empty shell to urban rebirth. But when staff of The Whole Person begins moving into their new headquarters later this week, it will become an immediate landmark in architecture and construction.
The $5 million project is one of a few commercial structures built predominantly for people with disabilities and using guidelines of a concept called universal design.
From its wider-than-usual hallways to color-coded walls to extra-deep, voice-controlled elevators, the building was custom-rehabbed for The Whole Person, an agency that serves the "differently abled" — those in wheelchairs or who live with sensory or mobility impairments.
The agency is consolidating three area offices, the main one at 3420 Broadway and smaller ones in Gladstone and Prairie Village, Kan., and moving about 85 employees to the new space. It hopes to establish the three-story building as a Midtown grass-roots gathering place.
"We are hoping that the extra space will bring considerably more consumers to visit us," David Robinson, the agency's CEO, said during a walk-through. "We haven't had that in the past."
A resource center will offer computer stations, at wheelchair height, and other technological devices for people who otherwise wouldn't have access to them. A community multipurpose room will have a movie screen and the capability of showing captioned films for the hearing impaired. A tiled shower room will allow people with guide dogs to hose down muddy paws.
Robinson said the project gives his agency a chance to return to its roots even as it broadens its horizons.
"The Whole Person was founded as a community group where people could get together and talk about their mutual needs and educate the public about disabilities," he said.
The term "universal design" dates back about five decades. As the rights of wheelchair users and other people with disabilities garnered public attention, barrier-free living and similar approaches to design and construction evolved. After the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, local building codes and practices mandated more accessibility in new commercial and public construction, most of it applying to people in wheelchairs.
But universal design takes the concept of accessibility even further, promoting a flexibility for comfortable living that works for almost everyone, even those who are only temporarily constrained — someone on crutches or pregnant women, for example.
Residential applications of universal design have become common among families of people with disabilities or among baby boomers planning to "age in place," said Danise Levine, an architect and the assistant director of the Center for Inclusive Design & Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo in New York.
"The goal is to provide comfort and usability to as many people as possible," she said.
Page 2 of 2 - At the same time, "people are infusing universal design into commercial buildings because it makes sense," Levine said.
A short list of recent-vintage office buildings in Chicago, New York and Berkeley, Calif., that incorporate the idea were part of the inspiration for The Whole Person's project, said Peter Sloan of 360 Architecture, which is behind the renovation.
"We've helped The Whole Person understand what the capabilities of the building are," Sloan said.
In one major stroke, the architects lowered the original high ceilings by raising the floors 18 inches and installing mechanical systems below.
"Big giant volumes of space are not necessarily good for folks with disabilities," Sloan said.
Bold blue stripes of carpet delineate series of concrete columns along corridors in the second-floor office space. Those kinds of stark visual contrasts will help employees with limited vision get around. Bright color-coding elsewhere in the building will guide staff and the public to offices or meeting rooms: green walls near the elevators, orange at break rooms, dark blue around office doorways, light blue defining rest rooms.
Way-finding is often overlooked beyond simple signage, Levine said.
Two new elevators, a major expense, are connected to their own generator and thus can be used as emergency exits in place of stairwells as in most multistory buildings.
Project funding was aided by more than $2 million in historic tax credits. That meant careful attention to preserving historical details as much as possible.
There is a "ceremonial" entry that mimics the building's original entrance on Main, but it was more practical to build a main entry on the north side so a ramp could be installed connecting the building and its parking lot.
The building dates to the 1920s, when it housed the Goodenow Textiles Co., a nationally known maker of men's underwear. In later years, it housed a photo processor.
"We were searching all over town, trying to find something that felt right," Robinson said. "We had a lot of possibilities."
When a board member mentioned the vacant structure at 3710 Main, it seemed a natural fit.
"A lot of the people we serve are in midtown, or within a few miles," Robinson said. "It's on the MAX line, and Main Street was already undergoing revitalization."
As part of its missionary function, The Whole Person invited developers, planners and others into the building in recent months to demonstrate its hyper-accessible features.
"We hope this project becomes an example for the kind of things you can do," said Richard Wetzel of Centric Projects, the general contractor, "and so designers and developers can make informed decisions. I hope it becomes a thought leader."