Nick Lehnert – Column: Former Storer School site a unique opportunity for a ‘live-work’ community

The Star Press

August 21, 2020

I couldn’t help being struck by the relationship of the Your Turn guest column entitled, “Human capital, housing connected,” by John Fallon and Thomas E. Faris, and the letter to the editor written by Roberta Allen entitled, “What will happen with the former Storer site?”

Both were published in the Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020, print edition of The Star Press and, in my opinion, pose both a great challenge and a great opportunity for our community.

For the last six months the COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of Americans, including thousands of fellow Muncie citizens, to experience the reality of working remotely at home rather than their normal place of employment.

However, the concept of “live work” in which one carries on their job in their residence is not new. The habit of working from home has been growing as families struggle to cope with ever-increasing cost of child care, tire of the time spent and stress of commuting, and more employers realizing the attractiveness with emerging professionals of being able to work remotely for two or three days a week.

I have run our small architectural practice, Costello + Associates, from our home since its founding in 1976 and have always found the positives far outweigh the liabilities.  I hope my dear wife, Carmen, feels the same!

The following three paragraphs rely heavily on an article entitled, Design Details – Home Offices, by Claire Easley, that appeared in BUILDER magazine, May 06, 2013.

According to a 2010 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 10 American workers were operating out of their home at least part of the time — a number that’s been growing over the past decade (2000-2010). Not surprising, given the 2008-12 depressed employment climate, this past decade has seen a steady increase in that percentage.

As a result, home offices — once relegated to the move-up and luxury markets — are now in demand by buyers in all tax brackets. “We’re finding that even in affordable housing, people are saying, ‘Hey, I know it’s a one-bedroom, but is there any way you could squeeze in some home office space?’” says Oakland, Calif.–based architect Mike Pyatok. Such “offices” can take the shape of anything from a strategically placed built-in desk to a transition space that pulls double duty.

In the suburbs, single-family housing is seeing a shift as well, according to Nick Lehnert, executive director of research and development at Irvine, Calif.–based KTGY, who reports that today’s buyers are eschewing the tradition of placing offices at the front of the home, preferring instead to keep desk clutter out of view by putting work space toward the rear but connected to main living areas.

Furthering full disclosure: Mike was a classmate of mine at Pratt Institute (Class of ’66) and is considered one of the most outstanding architects who has focused on achieving excellence in affordable housing in the United States.  He has been to Muncie on three occasions at the invitation of the BSU/CAP Muncie Urban Design Studio to share his insights and had concluded that there are two unique situations about Muncie that make it a perfect fit for Live-Work housing.

The first is that Muncie, as a university community (Ball State, Ivy Tech Community College), inherently has a larger percentage of its families of faculty, professional staff, married graduate students that have both heads holding professional degrees and seek full- or part-time employment.

The second is that Muncie has a vibrant and growing “makers community,” a term applied to those involved in producing art, craft and other products, typically from a home-based studio or workshop.  The success of Madjax is proof of this unique demographic.

All this being said and building upon the question posed by Roberta Allen, I submit that Muncie is positioned to engage in a public participatory planning and design process that would develop a long-term development plan for the reuse of the former Storer School site.

Mayor Ridenour has the opportunity to promote an urban planning and design process that would develop a housing project here in Muncie that would set a national precedent for a neighborhood of the future … rather than the “same old, same old” projects we see devouring acres upon acres of fertile farm land in our state.

What about a neighborhood that responds with housing typologies that: respond to the emerging “live-work” movement; provide accessible housing for disabled and 55+ who can and want to live independently; and, multi-generational housing (that I grew up in living above my grandparents in New York City)?

For the portion of the site in the Cardinal Creek flood plain and flood fringe, what about a new city park?  While we are at it … what about a quite-easily achieved extension of Muncie’s trail system with a Cardinal Creek Trail that would directly link this neighborhood to the Ball State campus?

I believe it is time for Muncie to be ahead of the urban development curve, not 20 years behind!