@BizLondon cover story on @LDNRoundhouse

From May, 2015, Business London:

Let’s be honest: This is an awful lot of fuss over a middling steak house that served its last strip loin nearly 10 years ago and was a boarded-up blight on Horton Street beginning in 2007. For two years now, we’ve been hearing about plans to renovate the one-time restaurant into something more glorious.

The fuss, of course, isn’t about the former Great West Steak House at all, but rather about the original use of the building, long before it was converted to a restaurant in 1973.

In 1887 -- the same year the federal Liberals chose Wilfred Laurier to lead their party -- Michigan Central Rail built a roundhouse to service and store steam locomotives it used on the Canada Southern Railroad, which it owned and operated from Windsor to Niagara Falls.

Because steam locomotives either couldn’t move in reverse or required a considerable amount of effort and jury-rigging to do so, railroads began building giant turntables, on which locomotives could be rotated. Then they built large buildings around the turntables, with storage facilities like spokes on a wheel to accommodate several locomotives at a time.

By their nature, roundhouses tended to be architectural wonders – circular structures built on grand scales. Enormous beams, spectacular windows, cavernous open spaces. You know, the perfect place to open a steak house.

Last month, nine years after they purchased the building, Patrick John Ambrogio and Slavko Prtenjaca, partners in Creative Property Development, celebrated the rebirth of the London Roundhouse at the official opening of the first phase of its redevelopment.

On hand, among others, were their first two tenants: Nielsen IT Consulting Inc. and rtraction, which recently divided itself into two new operations, Ellipsis Digital and Engine SevenFour.

Nielsen IT designs and installs communication infrastructure for businesses. Its new office is next to the Roundhouse but shares a wall with the original structure, a wedge in the circular design of the reimagined building.

The new rtraction offspring have moved into the 5,500-square-foot Roundhouse itself, a move that took much longer than partners David Billson, Shawn Adamsson and Josh Dow hoped when they signed up for the project.

“It was a long year in our temporary office next door,” Billson says with a wry smile. That would be the bunker-like Southside building immediately to the east of the Roundhouse that will be replaced in the next phase of construction. “This,” he says, motioning to the grand space in which his 31 employees now work, “was worth waiting for.”

Perhaps the funniest line in an October, 2013, CTV story about the renovation was this, from reporter Bryan Bicknell: “The London Roundhouse project is expected to be complete by early next year.”

Those were the intentions, but as anyone who has ever tackled a renovation knows, there are always surprises. And so the first phase of the Roundhouse took an extra year or more to complete. As Billson says, it was worth the wait.

He and his colleagues now work in what is arguably the most beautiful office space in London. The original beams have been restored and are as much art as function, soaring more than 20 feet above the ground. The arched windows are spectacular and let it an almost unmanageable amount of natural light. The design, by celebrated local architect John Nicholson of Nicholson Sheffield, is the perfect mixture of old and new, ideally suited to what Ellipsis Digital and Engine SevenFour do every day.

If you’re not sure what that is, you’re not alone.

Simply put, they handle digital media demands for organizations and companies of all sizes. In the last few years, the two parts of the business have been separating to a greater degree, so rtraction reorganized itself in conjunction with its move to new offices.

“The teams were splitting apart in what they were doing,” says Adamsson, VP of strategy. “It was getting difficult to do professional development together because they were doing such different things.”

Ellipsis Digital is the larger of the two, with roughly two-thirds of the workers. It is also the more public face of the overall organization, creating websites, running social media campaigns and dreaming up new ways for clients to capitalize on available digital tools.

Engine SevenFour, whose 10 team members will develop applications designed for larger projects, will create some of those tools. It will continue working for the company’s biggest client, the syndication arm of Disney TV.

Both groups will be writing computer code, but Adamsson, who pads around the office in sock feet, says much of what Ellipsis in particular does is imagination – dreaming up the ideas and then executing them, rather than getting excited about a new technology and figuring out a way to use it.

“We have the expertise here to be able to execute anything we can imagine,” Billson says. “That’s something that sets us apart. If we want to do something, we can do it.”

For example, the company famously runs the Worst Charity Website, giving the site chosen each year as worst a free makeover. That project hints at a change in direction for Ellipsis, with much more emphasis on working in the arts, culture and non-profit world. That meshes with Billson’s commitment to volunteerism; he chairs London’s Pillar Nonprofit Network.

But it still has plenty of traditional business-to-business clients as well. Last Christmas, the team now operating as Ellipsis devised an interactive Christmas greeting for the law firm Harrison Pensa. Explaining why it was a hit, Billson uses a phrase not commonly associated with the holidays.

“It allowed them to measure the engagement of their Christmas card.” It did so by encouraging recipients to play an interactive video game prompted in the card.

Billson is a big believer in measuring and tracking every aspect of a campaign. He’s been tracking the productivity of his own office and noted a significant dip while they were camped out in the next-door bunker for a year.

“It will be really interesting to see how this new space affects our productivity,” he says. Despite the presence of a foosball table and other distractions, it would be surprising if productivity didn’t jump dramatically.

“People like being here,” Adamsson notes. “It’s a great place to walk into every morning.”

If the rtraction folks are giddy about the Roundhouse, the Creative Property Development partners are ecstatic. Ambrogio and Prtenjaca have been friends since they attended Central high school together. They started Creative part-time initially but went full-time in 2004. They own 80,000 square feet of rental space on Richmond Row but have turned most of their attention to the area known as SoHo – South of Horton.

Many parts of the area, including the Roundhouse, are on the north side of Horton. The acronym describes an area recognized by the city, along the Horton Street corridor from Adelaide Street in the east to Thames Street in the west. Creative owns 24 properties in the area, and plans to transform the entire area.

Financed without equity partners, the two friends see SoHo as more than a development.      “We have a vision for the area. We grew up there and went to school there. It means a lot to us,” Ambrogio says. They see the Roundhouse as the hub not just of its immediate area but of the entire rejuvenated SoHo area.

The next phase is to add sections to the Roundhouse, in a circular fashion, like pie pieces organized around an outdoor courtyard. That will replace the Southside building to the east of the Roundhouse. One of the tenants in the next phase is Royal LePage Triland Realty, which hopes to move in toward the end of 2016.

We see it as a great opportunity to be part of a historical site transformation and what is sure to be the next landmark business hub in London,” says co-owner Peter Meyer.

Creative is looking for other tenants and may announce its next one as early as this month. “Something related to hospitality,” Ambrogio offered cryptically in late April.

Costs for the first two phases will be “upwards of $10-million,” Ambrogio says. The Roundhouse alone ran about $4-million.

The third phase Creative has proposed is a tower of 15 to 25 storeys on the northwest corner of the Roundhouse property. It would be a mix of residential and commercial and cost roughly $45-million. Plans optimistically call for it to be built by 2020.

“We see this as a renaissance of the area, the creation of a Horton gateway to downtown,” Ambrogio says. “Five years ago, we couldn’t give away parking spots in this area, and now we have all kinds of businesses and people asking us about what we’re doing. People are waking up to it.”

The biggest cheerleaders have been the rtraction folks, who have celebrated and documented the Roundhouse transformation at every turn, researched the building’s history and mounted an unrelenting Twitter campaign to document every aspect of the project.

The first phase alone justifies the hype -- and the wait. It was never about a steak house at all.