The Mill Block Historic District in downtown Topeka is a testament to the city’s history, a stretch of warehouses built to meet the needs of industries in the early 20th century.
Today, investors are renovating those warehouses, found at the foot of the Kansas Avenue Bridge, to meet the needs of a modern city, which includes everything from loft living to classic car storage to an art gallery.
The Mill Block Historic District encompasses 101 to 129 N. Kansas Ave.
Ted Graf recently purchased 125 N. Kansas Ave., a 13,000-square-foot, two-story building that is already home to Sunflower Strength & Conditioning, a cross-fit gym. He and his wife, Kerry Graf, have no plans to move the gym, but he does have plans for the upper floor.
”I’m going to put two rental apartments in, and then my wife and I are going to build our residence in the back on the top floor. So I’ll be actually living there,” he said.
The decision to move downtown came as the last of the couple’s five children went to college.
“We were going to sell our house no matter what and downsize,” Graf said, but he added, laughing, “Downsize to a 13,000-square-foot building. “We plan to do a lot of traveling when we retire. We thought this would be the way to go. We were looking more at getting something out in the country, out further away from Topeka. I think this has turned us around. What they’re getting done down there is exciting.”
Graf said the second floor of his building is a blank slate, although the building’s previous owners, Daryl Craft and Mike Fox, had started to build an apartment in the front of the building, with just a few walls and a bathroom put in. The Grafs’ 3,000-square-foot apartment at the back will include a deck that comes out over the loading dock on the first floor.
Graf said he has had to revamp his plans a couple of times as he has worked with the city to figure out how to combine a commercial space on the first floor with a private residence and a rental apartment on the second. But the plans were to be completed by May, and after obtaining the city’s approval, he would be ready to start building in May or June.
“Our hope would be to be moved in by the end of the year. I don’t know if we’ll quite make it,” he said.
He was drawn to the building’s parapet, and he plans to add small terraces on the building’s front and replace the large 6-foot by 8-foot windows there.
“There are two large garage doors on the front side there, too,” he said. “It’s got quite a bit of character to it. It was originally a broom company.”
This is Graf’s first venture downtown, although he has been watching the investments Fox, his cousin, has made and is himself an investor in The Celtic Fox. He hopes to see development along the riverfront and more activities in the evenings.
“If they can keep things for people to do downtown, I think they’ll do very well,” he said.
Now, if he can just get moved downtown so he doesn’t have to think about mowing for two hours two or three times a week.
”I can do something else with that time,” Graf said. “I just sold my mower last night. I’m done with this.”
The Grafs plan to live in a rental house until their new loft is completed.
Fox still owns Mill district buildings near Graf. He and Daryl Craft own 129 N. Kansas Ave., where they have M&D Classics, a car storage facility. Fox, along with Michael Wilson, founder of Architect One and also a downtown investor, own the building where Trails Gallery is located at 109 N. Kansas Ave., but they are selling it to Trails owner Jeff Hisey, Fox said.
Wilson owns 101 N. Kansas Ave., which he refers to as the “ugly white building,” and is in the process of determining plans for it.
Fox, Wilson and Craft also own 100 S. Kansas Ave., catty-corner from the Mill district buildings. Fox said they have leased about 6,000 square feet of the 20,000-square-foot building. It has an apartment on the second floor that was put in by the previous owners.
Fox was one of the early investors in the downtown area, bringing The Celtic Fox downtown when it was a challenge to keep a business open there. Now, his many projects are well-known, and he hopes the momentum started in Topeka’s core will continue. Living downtown still seems attractive, but Fox said some people who talk to him about it are concerned about parking and the lack of a grocery store.
“We’re still lacking some of the things it takes to make the downtown work,” he said. “I know that a lot of this stuff is kind of in process. As more and more things happen, everything’s kind of interconnected, and once it gets going, things will keep going. There’s still a lot of buildings down there that are vacant.”
Fox said he thinks a boost will come with the opening of the Cyrus Hotel and its restaurant.
“I think we’re right on the edge. I’ve said that before, but I really think we are, and I just think it’s a matter of we gotta get these other things done,” he said.
In downtown incarnations of the past, Fox said, he would often see people who were under-capitalized try to start businesses and make investments. Now, with big players like Jim Klausman and Cody Foster working in the area, that has changed.
“Now we have some players, some guys that have money that are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Cody is stepping up,” Fox said. “Jim stepped up. There’s (John) Federico and (Greg) Schwerdt and all of those guys — all of them are players in this. I think everybody is waiting to see if this hotel really does happen. Once those things are in play, if everybody gets a good feel out of this, I think it’s off to the races. I think we’ll see stuff that will be pretty exciting.”