Law firm sticks with unconventional space

October 20, 2009

The concept of the fixer-upper is well known in residential real estate, but a local law firm is employing the same concept in the commercial office space realm. With its expansion last month into the historic Eden-Talbott House at 1336 N. Delaware St., the local environmental law firm Plews Shadley Racher & Braun now owns and occupies three historic homes and a 1950s-era office building in the same block.

The firm’s 55 employees are distributed between those four buildings and a nearby fifth building where it leases 1,000 square feet. The piecemeal headquarters, which totals 30,000 square feet and was assembled over the last 21 years, puts the firm in rare company. It’s almost unheard of for an organization of its size to conduct business out of five separate buildings.

And in today’s market, office users are more likely to rent space than own it.

It’s definitely a tenant’s market, said Jon Owens, a senior vice president with the local office of Colliers Turley Martin Tucker. With office vacancy rates topping 19 percent, landlords are cutting attractive deals.

A few years ago, when vacancies were relatively low and landlords were calling the shots, a wave of law firms turned to the market for buildings they could buy and occupy. That’s rare today, Owens said, but it still happens. Decision-makers in a firm don’t always follow the crowd.

That’s certainly true at Plews, where the partners prefer to own rather than lease and are proud of the firm’s support of historic preservation, said Jeffrey Featherstun, a partner in the firm.

“We like to think we’ve improved the neighborhood,” Featherstun said.

The firm was founded with three partners in 1988, the same year it bought the Italian Renaissance-style house at 1346 N. Delaware known as the William B. Wheelock House. Wheelock, an executive of the former L.S. Ayres & Co. department store, built the house in 1912.

By 1994, Plews needed more space and bought the 1892 Alvin S. Lockard House across the street. By early 2000 it had purchased a small office building in the same block, and at the end of last year the firm bought the Eden-Talbott House.

The 1871 house had a variety of owners before Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana bought it in 1979 to spur redevelopment of the Old Northside. Plews bought the house from the National Federation of Music Clubs and hired Marten Construction Management to renovate the nearly 8,000-square-foot structure.
Featherstun said the firm’s 17 partners are distributed about evenly between the five buildings, two of which are on the east side of Delaware. The other three are across the street.

Employees have gotten used to the unconventional office arrangement. “More business is transacted electronically on bad-weather days,” said Featherstun, but “we keep umbrellas by the door.” The flip side is that on good-weather days, employees have a good excuse to get some fresh air, he said.

Featherstun, who’s been with Plews since 1992, said the firm reexamines its real estate needs every time it runs out of space and regularly hears from real estate brokers interested in getting the firm under one roof. But clients, guests and employees enjoy the unique set-up, he said, and the partners haven’t been persuaded to give it up.

They also think they’ve gotten the buildings at the right price. “Our hope is that if we ever decide to do something different we can sell the houses for a nice profit.”



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