Historic St. Johns Building Sees New Life

Merriam-Webster defines a waypoint as “an intermediate point on a route or line of travel.” Over a century old, the F.C. Mason building has had many waypoints over the years and is looking forward to a big one in 2020.

The historic two-story, 45,744-square-foot F.C. Mason building in downtown St. Johns has been vacant for eight years until it recently found new life repurposed as apartments and a coffee shop. The 40 apartment units are slated to be finished in the first quarter of 2020.

The red-brick structure at Railroad Street and Spring Street was built in 1898. Its walls have housed grist, saw, planing, lumber and flour mills, as well as a manufactured natural gas plant. In 1908, the F.C. Mason Co. set up shop as a manufacturer of farming implements and added an east wing.

Ken Harris, a member of FCM Development LLC and St. Johns resident, saw the F.C. Mason building in need of revitalization. Harris also saw that middle-class housing was needed.

“We have a real shortage of housing,” said Harris.

The site was rezoned from industrial use to multifamily residential by the city to make the project possible.

The original structure was preserved. However, to bring the building up to code and repurpose the space, the roof was replaced; the courtyard was landscaped; and drainage, concrete and grass were installed.

Harris said revitalization projects can be tricky because “everyone has to be on board.”

FCM Development needed tax abatement from the city to move forward. Environmental cleanup and renovation (compared to building new) are expensive. Support and approval from the state, city and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. was critical for the project to be economically feasible for developers

In fact, the MEDC requires local municipality participation in order to grant an Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act abatement.

The investment to revitalize the building cost FCM Development $2.2 million. Phase 1, Phase 2, a baseline environmental analysis and cleanup amounted to an environmental cost to FCM Development of $50,000.

Consumers Energy invested $1 million to conduct an environmental cleanup. Contaminated soil was removed, replaced and retested for contaminants.

The abandoned F.C. Mason property was assessed at $170,000. The 2018 predevelopment tax to the city was $4,726. Post-development, taxes would be $19,485 without an OPRA tax abatement. The abatement freezes taxes at the predevelopment level for a specified time period so developers can recoup the costs from environmental cleanup and renovating an obsolete, blighted building.

The annual $11,245 in tax savings to the developer over 10 years totals $148,243, when accounting for yearly 2% tax increases.

Currently completed apartment units are filled and there is a waiting list.

Co-owners Ethan Painter and Davey Fore, both St. Johns residents, are opening Waypoint Coffee Co., a 1,200-square-foot commercial space on the ground floor.

“We found a lot of generic office space that we probably could have remodeled to make it work, but we weren’t in love with anything until we walked into the old F.C. Mason building,” said Painter. “We knew as soon as we walked in that it was the right place for us.”

“From the exposed brick walls, to the original tin-stamped ceilings, to the aged penny tile, we fell in love with the character of the building,” he added. “We have tried to preserve as much of the original feel of the building as possible, while adding some modern accents.”

The coffee shop’s name comes from aviation. A waypoint is a GPS point in space that helps guide pilots. Airspeed, altitude and heading all change at a waypoint. Davey, a former commercial pilot and flight instructor, said a waypoint is a significant place on a journey.

“Your journey may not involve airplanes, but it does include places of significance where the momentum of your daily life is altered,” said Painter. “We have been in the process of finding a space and opening a coffee shop for almost three years, so we are thrilled to be this close to opening our doors to serve the community.”

The coffee shop will also offer baked goods from a local company and host events. Marilu St. John will move in come March. What attracted St. John to the apartments was “preserving the history.”

“Each apartment has something special about it,” she said.

However, location was St. John’s No. 1 reason for moving in.

“It’s walking distance to pretty much everything,” she said. “It’s an ideal place to live.”

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