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Design Concepts offers template for East Washington Avenue

Design Concepts offers template for East Washington Avenue Banner Image

MADISON, Wis. — Dave Franchino is no longer avoiding East Washington Avenue.

For years, his office was located 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 via the interstate, southeast to the Beltline with an exit onto John Nolen Drive. The route would give his customers a picturesque view of the city's Capitol skyline with Lake Monona and Monona Terrace in the foreground.

It also would bypass the blight of the isthmus with its empty manufacturing facilities, vacant car lots and overall depressing vibe that stood in contrast to the city's overall reputation.

Franchino, the president of Design Concepts, no longer goes out of his way to show off his city. Instead, he has moved his company's headquarters and about 55 employees into part of the Lyric building next door 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 or improve existing products and creates services in the medical, financial, industrial, commercial and consumer fields, among others. Most of its employees are engineers, designers and researchers, many of whom live on the isthmus, only now some have sold their cars as work is just a short walk or bike ride away.

Their new offices are flooded with natural light, and each employee has an option of a workspace adjacent 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 is home to a snack bar and foosball and ping-pong tables and features folding glass doors that open into 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 that show 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 adjacent affordable housing units along East Mifflin Street remain available. Of the 68,000 square feet of office space, Design Concepts has about 22,000 square feet.

The remainder 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, while there are plans to develop the land next door that had been home to Car-X.

"It shows the excitement that's in the corridor and the enthusiasm," said Rich Arnesen, a principal with Stone House Development. "I grew up near here, and for years it was pretty funky and deserted. So, we're pretty thrilled."

The workforce in the Lyric also blends well with Epic Systems and other tech company workers who live in the 11-story building and other nearby apartment towers.

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., although it will not make beer at the site. Further out on the corridor, apartments are under construction along the Yahara River, while the 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 facility near Stoughton and Pflaum roads, and into a new 22,000-square-foot space in what was then a young 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.

Past projects have included designing a way to install a heart valve without open heart surgery, developing low-cost wheels for motorcycles and prototypes for better football helmets. More recent work has included improving a proton therapy system for cancer treatment, designing a faucet that helps save water and a satellite terminal and solar array for an internet company trying to serve rural areas in developing nations.

The new office is designed to inspire and takes up part of three floors of the Lyric. Each is connected, however, with open staircases.

"It was a little nerve-wracking because we didn't know if (being on three floors) it would separate our culture too much, but it's been pretty fluid and flawless," said Jesse Darley, director of mechanical engineering and a principal owner of the company. "We looked at remodeling (in the business park). We looked at building in the suburbs, but this is a design hub that we have not been a part of for the past 15 years."

The main office is on the second floor where conference and project rooms are named after types of cheese and cheese products in homage to the site's past. Some include galvanized steel walls that can be drawn on with an erasable marker while nomadic galvanized steel panels used to formulate ideas can be moved from workspace to workspace and hung from exposed pipes.

The second floor also has a 300-square-foot lab — for electrical and mechanical engineering work — equipped with a high-speed camera, microscopes and a 3-D printer. Next door to the lab is a space to test and conceptualize products with virtual reality technology, while the first floor is home to a 4,000-square-foot prototype shop. The space includes lathes, drill presses, a spray booth and milling machines, but it is largely obscured from passing motorists and pedestrians on East Washington Avenue.

In attempt to connect the neighborhood more to the business, Design Concepts, which does most of its work for clients outside the city of Madison, has created a white board in one of its ground-floor windows to highlight social causes and neighborhood events. The company is participating in reading program with students at nearby Lapham Elementary School and helped design a space at Lincoln Elementary School for students to be creative. The Design Concepts offices are also being used to host regular after-hour events including a Madison Chamber of Commerce event on May 3 highlighting virtual reality technology.

"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."

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Wisconsin State Journal.

Barry Adams
Star Tribune

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