Award-winning Preservation: Historic "White Elephant" Now "Green" IBM Service Center

The 2011 National Preservation Awards, presented at the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo last month, recognized one of Main Street’s most impressive historic rehabilitation success stories. Dubuque, Iowa, a Main Street community of 60,000, was determined to ensure a new future for its 1931 Roshek Building, a nine-story former department store that served as the city’s premier shopping destination for decades. The Roshek Brothers Department Store business withered, along with the city’s declining milling and manufacturing industries. In the fall of 2008, the then-owner of the 250,000 square-foot Roshek Brothers Building decided it was too expensive to overhaul and chose to vacate it in favor of newer office space. The loss of the tenant’s 350 employees and the prospect of a major white elephant building represented a major challenge to downtown Dubuque—and a major opportunity.

Fortunately, IBM was waiting in the wings and entered secret negotiations with the city to rehab and turn the Roshek Building into a regional service center. The building’s downtown location and historic character dovetailed perfectly with the company’s corporate commitment to sustainability. IBM agreed to sign a 10-year lease, with optional extension years, to occupy the Roshek Building. The catch? IBM insisted it be ready for occupancy in five short months—an extremely ambitious timeline.

The compressed timeline was by no means considered by IBM, the City, or the developer, Dubuque Initiatives, as an excuse to cut corners. On the contrary, significant sustainability features were incorporated into the $45 million project (earning it LEED Gold certification), original architectural elements of the building were retained, and aspects of the property’s history were interpreted—all while respecting the existing ground-floor tenants. Furthermore, when the 2008 floods hit Iowa, salvaged materials from the Roshek project were donated to assist with rebuilding efforts in affected areas.

To the delight of many (and the surprise of more than a few), the Roshek Brothers Building re-opened in 2010, creating 130,000 square feet of office space for IBM, 10,000 square feet of new retail space and approximately 63,500 square feet of office space for local businesses. The completed project stands as the largest historic rehabilitation project undertaken in a Main Street Iowa community to date—and as a model for a first-rate historic rehabilitation that blends economic development, sustainability and technology in a Main Street context.

Not only has it preserved the character and usefulness of the historic Roshek Brothers Building, but IBM has also brought 1,300 well-paying information technology jobs downtown, helping Dubuque transition from a manufacturing-based community to a more diversified, regional employment center. An analysis of the direct, indirect, and induced economic impacts from the construction investment and the first 10 years of operation shows that the project is expected to create $1.6 billion in total economic impact and $241.3 million in federal and state fiscal impacts.

The Roshek project has also drastically improved Dubuque Main Street’s ability to promote the use of existing buildings and has created a strong market for downtown housing. More than 20 upper-story residential projects have commenced downtown since the project’s inception.

Furthermore, the developer, Dubuque Initiatives, offers rents at 100 percent below-market to business tenants that provide community services such as health, education, neighborhood and community development, and arts and culture. IBM has also committed to use 10 percent of its New Markets Tax Credit equity to fund a Sustainability Endowment, which provides “green jobs” training opportunities for the surrounding low-income community.

It is no surprise then that the Roshek Building project has attracted national attention from news agencies, industry leaders, and even the White House. The National Trust for Historic Preservation joins Main Street Iowa and the International Economic Development Council in honoring the project with awards of excellence.

Many parties share in the credit for the success of the Roshek Building rehabilitation. Dubuque Initiatives acquired the building and took on its vast rehabilitation. Gronen Restoration is credited with a masterful job of managing the project to meet IBM’s deadline, skillfully coordinating the project financing, design, deconstruction, construction, tenant development, and property management. As many as 33 public entities and private organizations partnered in the project. Key financing pieces that made the project feasible included multiple layers of historic and New Markets Tax Credits and a guarantee from the City of Dubuque.

For more information on the National Preservation Awards, visit http://www.preservationnation.org/awards.