Homes: Blue Line Station
Blue Line Station
Warehouse rehabbed into industrial loft apartments, commercial space
Story: Jodi Heckel
Photos: Heather Coit
Jeff Mellander has watched over the past two decades as downtown Champaign has become a destination, not just for entertainment but also for living.
And he’s played a part in creating more residential spaces in the downtown area.
“I felt like there was an opportunity to have an urban experience in Champaign,” Mellander said.
“Twenty-four-hour living has always been a big priority,” he said. “I just sort of took that as a benchmark to base my own interests on, knowing it was an objective of the downtown (Champaign) planning department.”
Mellander recalls when many downtown spaces were underused and there were few apartments available. But he knew there was a demand. And having studied architecture at the University of Illinois, he could visualize what a space might become.
“It was kind of fun for me to get into a lucky situation where I could buy a building, renovate it and put in living units,” he said.
With an increase in restaurant and nightlife options, the downtown area became more of a destination as well, Mellander said.
“The single most significant change that happened was approval of outdoor restaurant and bar activity. When they approved that, it really opened up a lot of opportunities,” he said. “When you drive by and see people, you see there’s a large demographic too. It’s not just college kids. It’s young people and older people and families, all age groups.”
Mellander has purchased and renovated a number of buildings downtown over the past 25 years. He started with a building at 119 W. Washington St., behind the former Carmon’s restaurant, that he renovated to house his business, Precision Graphics.
He refurbished the building at the corner of Walnut and Taylor streets, where Fleurish is now. Mellander lived in one of the apartments on the second floor until last fall.
He renovated the apartments above the old Carmon’s restaurant (now The Wedge Tequila Bar and Grill), as well as the Atkinson Monument Building at 106 S. Neil St. and the former Price Paint Store building at 108 S. Neil St. Precision Graphics is now in those buildings, along with the Champaign County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Mellander rehabilitated the building at 117 N. Walnut St. that formerly housed Vintage Antiques, and Radio Maria expanded into that space. He also improved the space where Bacaro is located.
One of his larger projects was as one of the investors in the renovation of the 1870s-era Metropolitan building at Neil and Main streets that was to include 13 apartments. The work was nearly complete when the building burned down in November 2008.
“Losing that building was devastating,” Mellander said.
After that loss, Mellander noticed the former Sports Publishing building was for sale. The building once was the Hickory Street Car Barn, housing trolleys for the local streetcar system.
“I had driven by that building for years and was never very interested in it,” Mellander said. “I didn’t particularly like the way it looked. I liked the fact it was a warehouse. Then I realized it was for sale and decided to take a look at it. I was intrigued by the possibilities.”
Among the possibilities were the 17-foot ceilings on the second floor that would allow for two-story loft apartments.
“I love the neighborhood. I was real excited about trying to push the entry into downtown Champaign farther north,” Mellander said, noting the former B. Lime store and Escobar’s restaurant had already started to shift attention to the north part of downtown.
He bought the building in 2009 and began renovation work. The second story was divided into nine apartments, including one Mellander moved into last fall. The apartments are all occupied.
The building was rechristened Blue Line Station, named for its past as a trolley barn and for the line of blue paint still visible running around the building on the first floor’s brick walls.
The first story has commercial space, with Surface 51, a marketing and design firm, on the north side of the building. Renovation work is under way on the south side for a space that will house YG Financial. And there is 7,000 square feet of space in the back of the building – the space that was the trolley barn at one time – that could be renovated in the future.
Mellander thought the brick structure wouldn’t need a lot of repairs, but he found there were some fractures in the brick near the roof that required structural improvements. The steel lintels above some of the windows in the warehouse had also deteriorated. Mellander had to remove interior and exterior brick and reinforce the steel. He replaced all the windows, tuck-pointed the entire building, put on a new roof and installed skylights.
He also had to increase the capacity of the water service to the building for fire suppression, and increase the size of the electrical service, plumbing and storm sewers.
A unique feature of the building is the entrance into Surface 51 through the old freight elevator space. The elevator car itself is in Mellander’s apartment. Visitors can see the mechanicals, including the weights and pulley wheels. The original pull-down, wood-slat doors are intact on both levels.
The building’s apartments (most of them one-bedrooms) have two different layouts because of differences in the configurations of the windows on the north and south sides of the building. But they all have exposed ductwork and steel beams; polished concrete floors stained a brick red; and wood planks for the ceilings downstairs and the floors upstairs.
Those on the south side of the building have patios, and there is a community deck as well for any residents or commercial tenants to use.
In his apartment, Mellander started with a gray palette, with the steel beams and gray laminate kitchen cabinets. He chose a slate blue-gray color for his walls, a color that would showcase his artwork well.
Because of the proximity of the elevator shaft, Mellander’s apartment has a steel beam running the length of the apartment. Below it, he put a panel of glazed, ribbed glass that allows light through to the bottom of the second floor.
David Spears, owner of Radio Maria and an artist, designed the pendant lamps hanging over the kitchen island. Spears also made the pendant lights in the other apartments, in the building’s stairwells and in Surface 51. They are a “signature component” of the building, Mellander said.
The apartments’ bathrooms feature slate tile on the floors and shower walls. The tiles were cut to different widths and pieced together irregularly.
The apartments on the south side of the building all have exposed steel beams in the showers. Mellander chose to keep the beams visible rather than hiding them behind a wall.
“They really, truly are industrial lofts,” he said. “I like to get into the guts of a building, find what’s at the core of it and feature the architectural elements that are there. I love the scale of this building. Everything is so well-proportioned, and it’s big.”
His south-facing apartment has large windows on both floors. It wasn’t until Mellander was in the building after dark that he came to appreciate the Champaign skyline, with several high-rise apartment buildings on campus and the M2 building downtown.
“This is micro-urban,” he said. “I think people really like the feeling they are in the city.”