Metromode: Royal Oak’s Second Story

Everyone
knows Royal Oak’s first story. It’s the story of retail and restaurants
and bars. A city where you can grab a bagel or a slider, pick up a pair
of high-heels, get a haircut, do a shot of whiskey (or something
fancier), and buy a bowl of noodles. And everything is within a
half-mile radius. But that’s just a small sampling of what goes on
around here.

There’s
a fairly good chance you haven’t noticed that there’s more than one
floor up and down Main Street and Washington, save for The Fifth‘s 18 floors of lofts. Up above Andiamo’s, Sangria,
Leo’s Coney Island, and the like, is a whole other Royal Oak. A Royal
Oak you’re probably not aware of. It’s a different story, both
literally and figuratively. It’s void of popped collars,
bar tabs, and soups of the day, but chock-full of Mac computers,
Photoshop users, IT nerds, and hundreds of cereal boxes – yes, cereal
boxes.

There are 452 total tenant spaces in the downtown Royal
Oak area, which the Downtown Development Authorities has running from
Lincoln north to 11 Mile and West Street east to Troy. Of those 452
spaces, 155 are on the second floor or higher.

Iwerk is one of them.

Started
20 years ago, Iwerk is a software development and technical services
company on West Fourth Street, next to Sangria Tapas Café. (The
business really starts on floor one-and-a-half, encompassing a second
floor.)

But in the beginning, as the Old Testament kicks off,
Iwerk was split into two. Before it became part of Royal Oak’s second
story, the software development side of the company was housed in a
space next to the Detroit Zoo and the IT and technical services branch
was in Pontiac.

“It was very important for us to be in one location, in one place,” says Iwerk’s COO Paul Tucci.

Iwerk’s
projects range from the sole creation of software for one of the
largest mental health organizations in the state to developing an
iPhone app for the NHL. The other side of the company offers text
support and technical services that fall under large scale IT
implementation, emergency IT fixes, and Internet connectivity for
hundreds of clients.

“It
was important for the Iwerk culture,” he adds. “We’re very
non-traditional and we wanted that environment. We want a place where
people will want to come and work. Downtown Royal Oak was a natural fit
for us.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Tucci and founder Tom Lewis
can walk to the office from home. But Tucci says the atmosphere and
creative culture in Royal Oak were also a big factor. “Even right here
in this building there is a post-production video company, an audio
studio, advertising, and a fiber installing company,” he says.

Of the 452 spaces, 237 are office spaces. According to Royal Oak’s DDA,
65 of those office businesses are deemed to be creative – we’re talking
advertising firms, web and graphic designers, software designers, IT
firms, photographers, post-production operations, and film and music
industry companies. That’s nearly 30 percent.

And, after a quick
survey and a few Internet inquiries, it’s quite apparent that above the
smoky bars, popular eateries, and quirky shops, is a canopy of
creatives all leasing spaces with a street view below.

There’s Octane Design, a graphic and interactive design firm on Main Street, above Leo’s Coney Island. Sitting atop Andiamo is CrashEdit,
a post-production film and video company. Down a few blocks, on East
Third Street, is the Warrior Woodshed, a subsidiary of New Balance and
the advance design headquarters for Warrior Sport’s lacrosse equipment.
The list goes on and on. And then there is Bob Konrad from the Graphics Factory, perched above Caribou Coffee on Main Street.

Konrad
and the Graphics Factory have been part of Royal Oak’s second story
since 1976. These days he’s rolling off large format prints for ad
agencies, corporations, and various artists. He’s also a collector. 
You can’t tell from the street but the 24 rooms that Konrad now rents
above Caribou and Elie Wine Co.
are shelved and lined with Wheaties boxes, board games, Pez dispensers,
Matchbox cars, and a bunch of other dusty things. Most of the rooms are
filled with these collectibles, causing his offices to resemble the
Catacombs of Rome (but with Pez instead of bones). There is a printing
business in there somewhere, jammed between decades of collectibles.

“How
did I end up here?” He says, as if he can’t believe it himself. To his
left are two large printers running the length of the wall. Every other
surface in the room is covered with prints. “Well, my partner” – though
no longer a partner – “and I saw a sign at the bottom of those same
stairs that said for rent. My partner and I both lived in Royal Oak.
Caribou used to be a dress shop. Fields Woman Apparel it was called.
Rent for this place was $100. Even if the printing business didn’t
happen, we were gonna rent it anyway.” With inflation, $100 today would
be just a shade under $400.

Royal Oak has changed a lot since
’76. Konrad says there is less retail and more bars and restaurants.
Yet, the one thing that hasn’t changed is Konrad’s penchant for being
downtown. “I like it,” he says. “Everything is here.”

Jim
Berry, senior editor and founder of CrashEdit, says, “Royal Oak is
vibrant. It’s filled with activity. It’s like a real city.” Berry
started the company in his bedroom, upgraded to the dining room, spent
the next seven years at Royal Oak’s Washington Square Building (on the
corner of Washington and West Fourth Street), and is now the new lessee
of a corner space above Andiamo on Main Street.

CrashEdit’s clients include Mr. Alan’s and Wallside Windows. They’ve also designed and authored a newly released Spinal Tap DVD as well as a Dolly Parton DVD.

“You
run into people from the industry on a day to day basis,” Berry’s
partner Deb Agolli says. “It’s nice to come to a place where we aren’t
on an island.”

Octane Design is a graphic and interactive design firm that calls the second floor above Leo’s Coney Island
home. Some of their clients include the Ypsilanti and Detroit visitors’
bureau, the Henry Ford, and John Deere Landscaping. When projects get
too large for them – for whatever technical reason – Octane calls up
their buds over at Iwerk or another second story web service company
called Fluent Consulting (housed in the Washington Square Building). “It’s a good location for that,” co-owner and designer Tom DeMay says.

“The resources down here are great,” says the “Chief” of the Warrior Woodshed, Matthew Winningham. The Woodshed is the advanced design space for Warrior Sports, a subsidiary of New Balance. “Chief” is the title Winningham goes by, though, he says, “Director of Advanced Design” could also apply

“I
have a photographer a block away. A local guy does my web design. We
use a lot of local cats,” he says. “It’s perfect. And most of us here
live within a mile and a half of here.” At the Woodshed (about a block
east of Main on East Third Street), Winningham and his crew design the
hard equipment used in lacrosse. We’re talking the sticks and pads and
helmets of the game.

Warrior Sports, which was bought out by
New Balance six years ago, was started 15 years ago by Princeton
lacrosse star and Bloomfield Hills’ Brother Rice
graduate David Morrow. The company now has 500 employees, a
250,000-square-foot headquarters in Warren, and a few guys designing on
a second floor in Royal Oak.

Not all the businesses upstairs are
part of this creative industry. Royal Oak’s upstairs encompasses its
fair share of lawyers, doctors, dentists, and even one licensed
marriage counselor. But there is little doubt that this second story
creative community has taken root and continues to grow.

“Royal
Oak is having a resurgence,” Winningham says. “There are so many
creatives down here. The creative community is getting bigger and
bigger. And that’s good for everybody.”

So, even though you want
to look down – best-case scenario is you find a quarter – glance up
once in a while. It might not look like much, but there is a whole mess
of things going on behind those second floor windows – not to mention
hundreds of cereal boxes.


Terry Parris Jr. is the utility in-fielder for IMG, contributing regular features to Metromode, Model D and Concentrate.

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All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here

Photos:

Robert Konrad at the Graphics Factory – Royal Oak

Iwerk conference room – Royal Oak

Iwerk developer – Royal Oak

A collection of Wheaties cereal boxes at Graphics Factory – Royal Oak

Octane Design -Royal Oak

On the way to Ocatane Design