It started as a growth move by an Omaha architectural firm into bigger office space, in a struggling neighborhood at the onset of the recession.
Now, nearly six years later, the north downtown work site of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture has become an eclectic home of 13 businesses: some seasoned, some startups, a few with a banking focus, most with a creative bent.
What's more is that the shared work quarters — called the Co-Lab by participants — is still evolving.
A recent expansion of Alley Poyner Macchietto's original 10,000 square feet at the TipTop building at 15th and Cuming Streets into an adjoining 4,800-square-foot bay has made room for a dozen more small businesses.
Michael Alley called the “risky” venture into the transitional north downtown a “blast” that has enriched his 46-person firm and also seems to be feeding the local redevelopment momentum.
Recent Co-Lab arrival Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein agrees.
>> Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture
>> Bright Sky Interactive
>> Field Day Development
>> Future Pay
>> Live Well Omaha
>> Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein
>> Mary Zicafoose Textiles
>> Nebraska Enterprise Fund
>> Omaha Creative Institute
>> Revolve LLC
>> Secret Penguin
>> Steve Jensen Consulting
>> Verdis Group
“I wanted to be where things were going on in Omaha,” said Ziegenbein, executive director emerita of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, who relocated from west Omaha. “This is a real harbinger of things to come.”
While office- and amenity-sharing is a growing trend, the APMA Co-Lab stands out in part because its multiple businesses are not separated or identified by walls or signs. A collage of brands decorates a lobby wall and is the primary identifier of who works there; a host is available out front to direct visitors to a particular person.
Once inside, work-related paraphernalia is a tip-off to who occupies the work stations. Colorful spools of yarn and a giant loom used by Mary Zicafoose Textiles adorn one corner. Oil and other paintings give away Revolve LLC, which leases fine art work to corporations. Branding materials in another area shout out Secret Penguin.
Craig Moody of the Verdis Group, which advises clients making facilities greener and energy-efficient, likes that he is surrounded by similar-minded entities that often help one another professionally.
Take the streetscape project that Moody's six-person firm recently worked on. Moody was in the communal kitchen and bumped into Co-Lab partner Steve Jensen. The former city planning director-turned-consultant was full of institutional knowledge that boosted the streetscape effort.
On another occasion, architect Michael Alley was assisting a church with a design project. He leaned on the Verdis folks for sustainability suggestions.
“What seems to happen is the organic interactions,” Moody said.
When Alley Poyner Macchietto moved into the refurbished TipTop building in 2008, the principals didn't foresee how the Co-Lab would take off.
The firm's designers had helped NuStyle Development transform the property — where Model T Fords and pink spongy curlers were once manufactured — into apartments, conference rooms, a restaurant and bar and an arcade.
But while Laura Alley recalls the neighborhood as an emerging hot spot with the then-named Qwest Center Omaha and planned ballpark, she also recalls the gaping holes amid pioneering private enterprises such as the artist Hot Shops and Saddle Creek Record Complex that includes the Film Streams theater complex and Slowdown bar.
“It was kind of a desolate area,” said Laura Alley, who works on business development. “There was a lot of brown fields, undeveloped place and space.”
There also was the Great Recession, which had the economy slowing rather than growing.
The shared work environment started when Alley Poyner Macchietto invited in a local artist who was unfamiliar with running a business. Jensen came next after he shifted to the private sector; Verdis and the Creative Institute followed.
A few other entrepreneurs came and went, and the bulk of the current Co-Lab partners (short for Creative Collaborators) leased work stations after Alley Poyner expanded this year into the former Barley's restaurant space.
The common denominator among tenants, said Michael Alley, is a creative edge. Even bank-type entities such as Nebraska Enterprise Fund are innovative, he said, as it loans money to nontraditional efforts.
“Art in all forms is really honored here,” said Thomas of the Creative Institute.
In fact, the APMA Co-Lab plans to start hosting occasional public art shows and discussions about design topics in its private lobby that was carved out in the recent expansion. Today, the partners are hosting a private open house to show clients the renovation project.
Under the current arrangement, Alley Poyner Macchietto leases the overall work space from NuStyle, but the firm has the option to buy if the building changes to condos. Amenities include a kitchenette, conference rooms, indoor bike storage and an upward view from the lobby to the five-story open atrium topped with a skylight.
Co-Lab partners also have available to them the building's fitness room and rooftop deck, which is shared by TipTop apartment dwellers who have a separate entrance to the building.
As the Co-Lab grew, so did activity around it. The home of the College World Series was built. The Mastercraft building opened to fledgling startups.
Alley Poyner designed some of the area's newer projects, including the Blatt Beer & Table, the 9ines Loft Apartments and permanent supportive housing at the Siena-Francis House shelter.
From the TipTop roof, where Co-Lab partners can picnic in the shadow of the iconic water tank, Laura Alley pointed out old and new properties.
She told a visitor that Co-Lab partners look forward to more north downtown development. And she said Alley Poyner Macchietto looks forward to continuing its role in helping to prod yet another renaissance, in north Omaha. The firm is assisting in several housing and community projects and is the architect for the 75 North revitalization effort.
“This feels like the gateway,” Laura Alley said, looking out at her neighborhood. “There's a lot of energy here.”