By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Dave Franchino is no longer avoiding East Washington Avenue.
For years, his office was in the American Center Business Park north of Interstate 39-90-94. So when clients from out of town would visit Madison, trips downtown were taken using the interstate to go southeast to the Beltline and then exit at John Nolen Drive. The advantage of this route was that it gave his customers a picturesque view of the city’s Capitol skyline with Lake Monona and Monona Terrace in the foreground while bypassing the blight on display along much of the isthmus, with its empty factories, vacant car lots and generally depressing atmosphere.
Franchino, the president of Design Concepts, no longer has to go out of his way to show off his city. Instead, he has moved his company’s headquarters and about 55 employees into part of a structure called the Lyric building, which stands next to Breese Stevens Field. Franchino is not only embracing East Washington Avenue but providing a glimpse of what is to come as office buildings rise, a public market is planned and more apartments, restaurants and other businesses open between East Johnson and Williamson streets.
“What’s been just wonderful is watching this corridor develop into something that is vibrant,” Franchino said. “I feel really proud to be able to show off this part of the city. It really feels like it’s finally taking off in such a positive and exciting way.”
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that Design Concepts is a product-design and innovation consulting firm that helps companies design new products or improve existing ones and offer services to customers in the medical, financial, industrial, commercial and consumer fields. Most of its employees are engineers, designers and researchers. Many of them live on the isthmus.
Their new offices are flooded with natural light, and each employee has an option of a working next to a window. There’s a 16-seat conference room that overlooks East Washington Avenue, collaboration space and a third-floor cafeteria area called “The Tree House.” It’s home to a snack bar and foosball and ping-pong tables and has folding glass doors opening onto a massive outdoor patio.
On the 11th floor, a commons area includes a kitchen and Wi-Fi for the building’s tenants and offers panoramic views showing off lakes Monona and Mendota, the State Capitol and the isthmus. A furnished outdoor patio and a fireplace add to the ambiance.
“There’s a lot of things happening in Madison, and I think we really believe that it can become an important center for design and biotech and technology in the country,” said Stefanie Norvaisas, Design Concept’s director of research and strategy. “We have a lot of passion for the university and for the city and for the state, so we want to be a part of that.”
The Lyric building, developed by Stone House Development, is on the site of the former Madison Dairy Produce Co. All but two of the 138 apartments in the tower have been rented, and only 10 of 65 nearby affordable housing units along East Mifflin Street remain for rent or sale. Of the 68,000 square feet of office space, Design Concepts has about 22,000 square feet.
The rest is taken up by offices for Stone House Development; QTI Group, a staffing and human resources firm; Filene Research Institute, a non-profit research and think tank for the credit-union industry; and Graef, an engineering, planning and design firm.
About 4,000 square feet of first floor commercial or retail space remain for lease. There are also plans to develop land next door that had once been home to Car-X.
“It shows the excitement that’s in the corridor and the enthusiasm,” said Rich Arnesen, a principal at Stone House Development. “I grew up near here, and for years it was pretty funky and deserted. So, we’re pretty thrilled.”
A few blocks away, the Spark and Gebhardt buildings are scheduled to be completed later this year. The Spark, a 158,000-square-foot, eight-story building being developed by American Family Insurance, will be home to StartingBlock Madison and serve as a hub for start-up companies and established entrepreneurs. It will also provide more work space for American Family.
Next door, the eight-story Gebhardt Building will include 100,000 square feet of retail and office space, a 2,500-seat state-of-the-art performance venue and a 6,520-square-foot bar and restaurant for Vintage Brewing Co.
Further out on the corridor, apartments are under construction along the Yahara River, and planning continues for the Madison Public Market at the corner of East Washington Avenue and First Street.
Design Concept’s position on the corridor and its $2.2 million build-out of its office space in the Lyric meshes well with its surroundings and are key to attracting, retaining and motivating employees, Franchino said.
“Employees are really everything to a company like this,” said Franchino, who joined the company in 1996. “Every asset we have walks out the door every night. The building is a reflection of our investment in those people.”
Design Concepts was founded in 1967 by David Wendt, a UW-Stout graduate and engineer. In 2000, the firm moved out of its 9,000-square-foot space near Stoughton and Pflaum roads, and into a new 22,000-square-foot space in what was then a new but rapidly developing 447-acre business park near the headquarters of American Family Insurance. Besides its Madison office, Design Concepts has about 13 employees at an office in San Fransisco that provides access to many of its California clients with one employee each in Boston, Minneapolis and Chicago.
“That’s been one of the fun things about moving Downtown,” Franchino said. “We never felt enough (connection) to the Madison business community, and a lot of people didn’t know who we were. There’s a lot of like-minded companies in Madison, and we want to be a central part of that.”