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Krutas, Devine lobby to update building codes for modern mixed use

Date: 7/19/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE — Business partners Vitek Krutas and Lori Devine have a message for state officials: if they want to encourage the re-use of mill buildings in the Gateway Cities, change the building codes to reflect a mixed use classification.

Krutas and Devine are the co-owners of Gateway City Arts, a former mill building at 92-144 Race St. Their plan, which is underway, is to renovate the building so it provides “flexible and affordable co-working space for artist and creatives,” according to their marketing materials.

On a tour of the building for Reminder Publications, Krutas showed common areas on the first floor that are being used by a dance company to teach the tango and work areas. On the second floor, there are cubicle areas being rented by area artists, as well as a conference room and a common art studio. There are wood and ceramic shops currently being completed as additions to this common space.

The partner’s goal is to develop the third floor into apartments, enabling an artist to live and work in the same building.

Recently, the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus visited the building and was given a list of changes that could make the re-development of such buildings much easier and quicker.

In a document given to the legislators, Krutas and Devine wrote, “Outdated Building Codes: This seems to be the underlying challenge of moving forward. The original codes were created for the mills and their industrial use at the time. The buildings are now being repurposed for lighter usage, live/work spaces and purely residential. We feel these codes are no longer relevant to today’s needs and in fact slow down the progress.”

Krutas said he and Devine are not alone in their efforts to re-use mill buildings and added in Holyoke there are about 10 other developers with similar projects.

Krutas said that he and his partner are not interested in grants or state aid as much as they want to see changes in the building codes that would not cost the state anything.

“The codes were created when the economy was great. Today it’s very different.” Krutas said. “We don’t want to minimize safety. We want to embrace common sense.”

Although he has a list of issues, Krutas said the primary impediment to faster and more affordable development is the state regulations concerning elevators. His building has a certified and serviced freight elevator that can carry up to 4,000 pounds. State regulations stipulate passengers cannot be carried in a freight elevator and Krutas and Devine would have to invest between $150,000 and $200,000 in installing a passenger elevator.

They have suggested allowing a grace period of a year for a building owner to upgrade an elevator while they are developing their business as well as a change in the building codes to reflect the mixed-use status as well as establishing a loan pool with little or no interest to qualified building owners to help underwrite an elevator installation.

Krutas also said that training an employee to be a certified elevator operator to carry passengers in a freight elevator is another low-cost idea.

Plumbing codes should be changed as well. Currently, in a residential building, less expensive plastic pipes can be used for building as tall as 10 stories, Krutas explained. Because his building is classified commercial, he and Devine have to use cast iron and copper for all plumbing regardless of all the building is being used, adding significantly to their cost.

They wrote, “We bought another building in Holyoke last month and four days after signing we were vandalized for the copper piping to be sold as scarp metal. Unfortunately they also cut a water pipe, causing massive water damager to three floors. This is a common occurrence today and costs insurance companies massive amounts of money.”

They have suggested the state allow the use of PVC pipes wherever possible and develop a “hybrid” code.

They also voiced concerns about state regulations about sprinkler systems where the heads have “ a little bit of paint on them” that requires their replacement.

They also believe that Holyoke Gas & Electric’s stance on net metering is discouraging building owners from installing photovoltaic cells on their roofs. Krutas said net metering and solar energy is part of establishing Mayor Alex Morse’s vision for Holyoke as a “digital city.”

Krutas said he and his partner “want to have open conversations and have some creative solutions” to this development issues. He said the legislators did seem to be interested in helping.

“We are all in this together,” he added.