'The Empire' rises on North Broadway: Eyesore property gets new look
The old building on North Broadway in Alexandria that once housed United Building Center is getting a brand new look.
Gone are the overgrown weeds on the property and much of the building that stood vacant after the building supply company closed five years ago.
In its place will be new offices for Real Estate by Jo's eight employees and 6,000 square feet of retail/office space that's open to a variety of other uses.
"It would be a good location for a wholesale grocery store, a brewery, a library — we can build it out to however someone wants it to be," said Jo Hvezda, the Realtor who is taking on the project along with her long-time friend, Casey Olson.
The redevelopment, which began in July, was jokingly referred to as "The Empire" at first and the name stuck, according to Hvezda and Olson.
The Empire is ahead of schedule and should be completed by May.
Hvezda, who admits to being a "project addict" with a vision for how a development can look, took it on because she wanted to give something back to the community. She also loves the location.
"We wanted to be downtown and part of the community," she said.
The project is a major undertaking and involves three things that Hvezda said you normally try to avoid doing — putting in a new roof, doing major demolition work and completing a total renovation.
The building was re-insulated. New plumbing was installed. New flooring was put in.
Another big change was lighting.
"There was no natural lighting," Hvezda said. "We added all new windows for our offices that offer views of Big Ole and the park. ... People don't realize how much of a draw Big Ole is, along with the farmers' market, the bike trail. It's a very pedestrian-friendly area."
The old building used to be one big structure. Now it is partitioned off to separate the real estate offices from the 6,000 square feet that will be used for other purposes.
Throughout the project, Hvezda and Olson made an effort to minimize waste and be stewards of the environment. They reused a lot of materials, including insulation, doors and bricks. They kept the same furniture. They decided there was no need to replace the furnace. They donated the steel that was removed.
"We didn't just want to throw it all in a landfill," Hvezda said.
"That just seemed so wasteful," Olson added.
"I guess I have a lot of my dad in me," Hvezda said. "He was a natural recycler and I learned from him about not being wasteful."
They're also adding rain gardens and making the building more energy efficient.
They also kept the project as local as possible, using local contractors — DS Plumbing, Olson Masonry, Mark Lee Asphalt, Schlangen Air, Roof 1 RBR, Alex Glass and Glazing, Hilltop Lumber, Sears Hometown Store, Arnquist Carpets Plus and Lake Mary Concrete.
Hvezda and Olson said they're looking forward to seeing the final parts of the project come together — putting in the parking lot, taking down the fence, and putting landscaping in.
"It's going to match the motif of the downtown area," Hvezda said.
One other touch: As it did at its former location, Real Estate by Jo will have a Christmas display in its window.
"It's a team-building thing we do and we take pride in it," Hvezda said. "It brings us together."