Downtown move thrills firm workersby Teya Vitu on Mar. 11, 2009, under Body, Edge, Local
The 37 staffers get room to ‘breathe,’ walk
A major local apartment management firm has brought a buzz to the core of downtown since moving into the restored 1901 Hittinger Building, 120 E. Congress St.
The 37 employees at the headquarters office for Morrison, Ekre & Bart Management Services have staked out several downtown haunts since moving in at the end of December.
“I bet if you go next door to the Grill, they will say their revenue went up $100 a week since we moved in,” co-owner Melanie Morrison said. “We had Café 54 cater a lunch for us last week. That was great. I think Subway’s probably benefitted quite a bit.”
Grill manager Karlen Ross said of MEB, “Any new business downtown is more than welcome.”
MEB workers quickly embraced the urban transit mode: walking – whether to an eatery, the bank, lawyers to handle receiverships or just for the sake of walking.
“It’s really nice that a lot of places are walking distance,” said Luz Bruscini, an MEB district manager. “I really love not having to get in a car to go somewhere. I really like Subway.”
MEB staffers also find their way to On a Roll, the sushi restaurant that opened last year a block to the west.
“They’re great,” On a Roll owner Dominic Moreno said. “They’re in here maybe two, three times a week. All the ladies are awesome over there. They always come in a group. They add some liveliness. They create the buzz.”
MEB has 600 employees scattered across Tucson and Phoenix. Apartment and district managers often venture to the headquarters.
“We keep an extra parking pass for them,” Morrison said. “We keep a roll of quarters at the front desk.”
MEB and HSL Properties are the two leading apartment management companies in Tucson.
MEB manages (but does not own) 37 apartment complexes in Tucson with about 8,500 units (20,000 units, including Phoenix and elsewhere in Arizona). HSL Properties owns and manages 29 complexes in Tucson with 7,655 units.
MEB moved from an old 5,000-square-foot house with several small rooms at 1039 N. Sixth Ave. near Speedway Boulevard into the 11,400-square-foot, three-story Hittinger Building, which gives everybody their own space. At the old location, Morrison shared her office with two others. Now she has an office to herself with a 15-foot high window and a view of the mountains.
Morrison looked for a bigger office for about year and had an offer in for an Alvernon Way office before buying the Hittinger Building for about $1.1 million plus $650,000 for tenant improvements.
“We love the building. We didn’t just want to be in a bland office building,” Morrison said. “What we paid (to buy and do tenant improvements) is pretty similar to what we would have paid for a B office building midtown.”
What does moving downtown allow MEB employees to do?
“Breathe,” said Theresa Durand, a human resources administrative assistant and a teaching golf pro on the side.
The downtown setting inspired Durand to lead twice-a-week noon walks for any staffers who want to join her. The Wednesday walk is a mile and Friday it’s two miles at “a brisker pace.”
The noon start time so far has been fine for the three to 10 people who join Durand. What about summer with the same start time?
“It’s going to be hot,” Durand said.
People from The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress St., across the street wandered over to welcome MEB to the neighborhood.
“They could have gone anywhere in Tucson,” said Mia Schnaible, The Screening Room’s marketing director. “They chose to come downtown. It really shows downtown is coming around. Dinnerware Artspace just had a huge art show. One North Fifth (Apartments) is almost all full up. You can really see the activity coming down here.”
The Screening Room people got an impromptu tour of the MEB offices, fashioned by architect Bill Williams, partner at Engberg Anderson, and photographer Kerry Schwartz. Williams said he outfitted the interior with a “fun, exciting, dynamic, visual environment for the people working there.”
The purple, green and rusty orange walls play off the MEB corporate colors. The roll-up glass garage door that serves as the downstairs conference room’s hallway wall plays off Williams’ imagination.
“(Morrison) was looking for a conference room that could accommodate the entire staff and also be small enough for a few people,” Williams said. “If we could have a wall that could move . . . One was the idea of a glass garage door.”
The district managers’ and accountants’ offices upstairs fill a big, high-ceilinged room with cubicles set off with partitions that curve downward from wall to hallway. That maintains open space but provides some privacy closer to the wall.
“We wanted to do something a little more sculptural,” Williams said. “In an open environment, people still want some privacy.”
Interior work also involved restoring the original wood floors upstairs.
“They were painted, chipped with holes, tacked over with license plates,” Williams said. “(Crews) salvaged wood where they cut holes for stairs.”
Schwartz shot the 47-photo downtown series she calls Tucson Details that adorns walls throughout MEB. Some are recognizable images, but for many she focused on small details.
“Just like the desert, downtown is just full of these subtleties,” Schwartz said. “I was discovering things all over the place. It’s all about looking deeper at the details. I discovered the fascinating details of downtown.”
All the photos are mounted on metal grille backdrops. The grilles give the photos a more industrial feel and expand the size of the image, Schwartz said.
“I’m not interested in the whole mural or whole downtown,” Schwartz said. “I’m looking at the components that tell the whole story. So many people know nothing about downtown. I like to photograph the details and subtleties.”
One photo is of a sign that says “Hope.” Morrison knew where she wanted that photo.
“We put up the Hope picture in the accounts payable department,” Morrison said.
Tom McNeil, owner of TM Design, built the two zinc laminated conference room tables and the computer table behind Morrison’s desk, and refashioned a 1950s desk for Morrison’s office.
“We took a postwar metal desk and applied zinc to the top of that,” said McNeil, who also crafted the zinc-top bar at Maynards Kitchen in the Historic Depot, 400 E. Toole Ave.
The artsy work setting makes sense for the MEB crew. Along with Durand’s golf and walking passions, Morrison is a guitarist and songwriter whose CD “On the Inside” raised $12,000 for New Beginnings for Women and Children. Sabra Faulk is better known for her bass playing around town and her CD “28 Churches 5 Bars,” but her day job is in accounts payable at MEB.
Downtown frustrations do come into play. Morrison wasn’t allowed to have her own garbage bin so she arranged to share Grill’s bin.
MEB could negotiate only six parking spaces in the county-owned parking lot behind its building, but negotiated a deal at undisclosed “under market” rates to lease spaces at the Santa Rita Hotel, which is owned by Humberto S. Lopez, MEB’s chief rival in the local apartment management arena.
“There’s not enough of it and it costs money,” Morrison said about parking.
Otherwise, though, Morrison and her crew are delighted to be downtown.
“The rewards are it’s a great, fun atmosphere,” she said. “You just can’t find a place like this anywhere else. You couldn’t walk anyplace (for lunch). We have lunch together a lot more.”