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More Business

Flying Star, More Lofts Downtown

By Charlotte Balcomb Lane
Journal Staff Writer
    Downtown is getting its very own Flying Star restaurant as well as a set of live-and-work loft condos at Eighth Street and Silver SW.
    The restaurant site, designed by famed local architect John Gaw Meem, is being restored and the Southern Union Gas Company Lofts are being built by Infill Solutions, a local partnership between architect Christopher Calott and developer and commercial real estate broker Jay Rembe.
    The $3.5 million restaurant and loft project has won high praise from both city planners and Downtown neighborhood groups.
    "This is very good news for the Downtown area," said Perry Wilkes, chairman of the Downtown Neighborhoods Association.
    Wilkes said that, despite recent construction of lofts and condos Downtown, the area still has 3,000 fewer residents than 30 years ago.
    "We need to have the full economic spectrum to support our Downtown businesses," he added.
    City planning director Victor Chavez said the project is significant because it anchors the western edge of Downtown. Heretofore, most of the development has occurred at the eastern edge.
    "This is the first time we've gotten development at the west end of Downtown," said Chavez.
    THE FLYING STAR: The Flying Star is going in across the street from the lofts in the former Southern Union Gas Co. building at 725 Silver SW. Architect John Gaw Meem designed the historic building in 1949 as a modernist showcase for the company then based in Dallas.
    Completed in 1951, it had soaring 17-foot ceilings, a swooping staircase that led upstairs to a hospitality room and huge plate-glass windows on the south and west sides of the 9,900-square-foot building.
    The ground floor housed sales and display space for the company's cutting-edge gas appliances. The hospitality room was used for cooking lessons to teach consumers how to use the appliances and for community meetings.
    When the building reopens next summer as the fifth Flying Star in Albuquerque, it will once again be a showcase, said Jean Bernstein.
    She owns the local restaurant and coffee chain with her husband, Mark Bernstein.
    "We're certainly not going to make huge changes," Bernstein said.
    Look for the interior to be updated, colorful and slightly quirky, she said.
    "We're going to twist the dial a little bit," she added.
    Tucson architects Richard Ansaldi and Lee Shaw, who designed the playful Satellite Coffee on Alameda, will design the restaurant restoration.
    "They're very conscious of every corner and human detailing," Bernstein said.
    The main dining room will be on the ground floor, and Meem's elegant staircase will lead to a magazine mezzanine on the second floor. An elevator is being installed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
    A balcony on the second floor that had been enclosed will once again be open to the air.
    What was once the hospitality room will also return to its original purpose. The second floor will be available for community groups or private lunches. The space will have mobile walls so it can be reconfigured to suit different party sizes.
    "We want an informal place to meet that won't cost an arm and a leg," she said.
    The building has been vacant for years and must undergo significant renovations, including adding new air conditioning, heating and electrical systems, bathrooms and construction of a kitchen.
    Bernstein said she wanted to move into Downtown for at least two years but couldn't find the right location. When Rembe bought the Southern Union Gas building from Downtown philanthropist Ray Graham III, she knew it was the right place.
    "We didn't want to be in the bar district. This is nestled right up against the neighborhood. We're good for neighborhoods," she said.
    THE LOFTS: The live-work loft condo concept is new to Albuquerque but has been successful in many other cities, said architect Chris Calott, who is building the Southern Union Gas Company Lofts with partner Rembe.
    "You live upstairs and you have the ability to have a business downstairs," explained Calott, who researched similar retail-residential arrangements in Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Diego and Denver.
    "It makes it really affordable because you don't have to pay rent on your shop," he added.
    Phase One— scheduled to begin sometime this fall— will have 18 three-story loft condominiums that include retail space on the ground floor. Rembe and Calott envision a small take-out deli, a flower shop, an artist's studio and maybe a barber shop or beauty salon.
    The second and third floors are residential, with decks on the third floor. Some models have a loft overlooking the living and dining rooms on the second floor.
    Three configurations are available, said Rembe, and sizes vary from 1,672 square feet to 1,058 square feet. Most of the condominiums also include one- or two-car garages.
    Prices will range from $300,000 for the largest to $150,000 for the smallest.
    The building is U-shaped, so each condominium has windows facing the street.
    "We've done 15 different site plans and floor plans," said Rembe.
    The goal was to maximize square-footage.
    Phase Two will produce 40 units built on vacant land on the east side of Silver. Those units will face the Phase One lofts. Phase Three will produce 20 condominium lofts next door to Phase One.
    Each condominium includes either on-street parking or a garage, but the idea of the lofts was to encourage pedestrian activity among Downtown residents.
    "The whole idea of this plan was park and walk," said city planning director Chavez.
    "We don't have housing like this yet in Albuquerque," added Rembe.

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