COLUMBIA — Just a few years ago, the warehouse known as the Berry Building was used to store car tires headed for Walmart.
But soon the building will be a key part of a revitalized North Village arts district. That development at Orr and Walnut streets, and others nearby, could increase traffic to the district and make it more of a destination for downtown visitors.
"We should be generating some critical mass here (that) I think was needed," said John Ott, who owns not only the Berry Building but several others in the North Village and downtown.
The Berry Building started out as a wholesale grocery store and warehouse built by its namesake, L.W. Berry, in 1925. When Berry died shortly thereafter, the building was sold and has since operated primarily as a storage facility, with occasional retail uses.
"It's been kind of an eyesore for many years," Ott said.
Now, the building has been cleaned up inside and out. Renovations are finishing up this month. The first tenant, Wilson's Fitness, is scheduled to open a gym in the building's basement in early December. Ott is looking for tenants to occupy the Berry Building's retail storefronts on Walnut Street, restaurant space on the building's north side and loft apartments on the top floor.
The building's warehouse look has been preserved. Ott said he has taken advantage of some of the warehouse aesthetics, using its many windows for natural light and retaining the original post-and-beam supports.
The building's new purposes are starting to take shape, too. Storefronts now line Walnut Street, and the restaurant's patio overlooks Orr Street. The top floor has been partitioned into 12 lofts: nine one-bedroom and three two-bedroom apartments designed for young professionals and empty nesters.
The North Village was once a busy district for Columbia artists, but shops closed and traffic slowed as shoppers went elsewhere, such as the Columbia Mall. But as people and businesses have returned to the downtown district, some say the North Village is on track to make a comeback, too.
"The more going on in our part of town, the more it benefits everyone," said Tracy Lane, director of Orr Street Studios. "I think there's a very good thing happening."
Orr Street Studios opened across from the Berry Building in 2007. Lane said nearby developments will help bring the studios within reach of downtown traffic.
"It's just an extension of downtown now," she said. "When the studios first opened, they were sort of out there by themselves. Now ... there's more traffic and more people, so there's more awareness for everybody."
When the Berry Building is complete, Ott hopes it will complement the developing art district's feel. He said he plans to install outdoor art projects near the building, and he's looking for creative retail or service tenants that match the neighborhood.
"There are just some businesses that aren't a good fit," Ott said. "You want stores that are true to our district."
Ott owns and recently developed several other nearby properties. Cafe Berlin moved this month from its location on Providence Road to a former service station nearby, at Tenth Street and Park Avenue. The Artlandish Gallery opened next to the Berry Building earlier this year, and an office building across Walnut is nearing completion. Ott also renovated the building at 1013 Walnut St. that now is home to Rock Bottom Comics and Mizzou Records.
And there's room for more. The Downtown Leadership Council, created by the Columbia City Council to find opportunities for downtown renewal, identified the area as a priority in a May report.
"People have deemed that area for years to be the North Village," Downtown Leadership Council chairman Randy Gray said. "I think it has such identity, and even the possibility for a stronger identity."
Next, the council plans to conduct a "design charrette," a planning process that brings together stakeholders — including business owners, property owners and residents — to discuss their vision of future development in the area.
"The idea is to get input from everyone involved to determine what the future of downtown is to be," Gray said. "How should it function? How should it feel? How should it look?"
The council will hire planners to take public input and turn it into drawings, renderings and possible guidelines for future development. The North Village, in particular, has a lot of potential for community involvement.
"Who's to say you couldn't have more artists involved in the creation of funky designs to distinguish the streetscape in that area?" Gray said.