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March 2011
Diverse + Creative
By Carol Gifford

     The Charlotte skyline includes many intriguing buildings, one of which—the NASCAR Hall of Fame—opened last May to rave design reviews, thanks in large part to David Tobin, partner at local architectural firm Tobin Starr + Partners.

     Tobin and Steven Starr are partners in the Charlotte-based architectural firm of Tobin Starr + Partners, a firm known for its expertise in targeted business sectors across the country and internationally. With its recent work in Charlotte, it is becoming more prominent in its home region.

     Tobin and Starr head the cultural, civic and higher education, and restaurant and retail sectors of the business, respectively. The firm also has expertise in corporate and commercial practice area and facilities architecture, as well as construction services.


High Profile

     “High-profile projects like the NASCAR Hall of Fame are inspiring challenges,” says Tobin.

     “It’s fun and flamboyant,” he continues. “It’s an elegantly simple statement of the NASCAR racing experience with the imagery of banking curves and expression of speed and motion of the racetrack. Simple and straightforward, with the exception of the signature ‘ribbon’ on the outside, it’s colorful and interactive on the inside.”

     Designed by Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners, a New York City architectural firm founded by legendary architect I.M. Pei, Tobin was asked to be the field architect in Charlotte. The firm chose Tobin, who previously worked at its New York City headquarters office, to oversee the day-to-day construction of the project.

     The NASCAR Hall of Fame, located Uptown on the corner of Caldwell St. and E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., is highlighted by a “ribbon” architectural element, composed of large, interlocking stainless steel panels that begin as a sloping exterior wall and twist to evoke the curved slope of a racetrack. The incisions in its metal skin, dynamically lit at night, are like “… the blur of a car racing past the spectator at tremendous speed.”

     Tobin relished overseeing the job site construction, which he says is an important and fascinating job. He says they staffed an on-site office at the NASCAR Hall of Fame for 36 months, “seeing it through from the initial concrete footings in the ground through the installation of all the exhibits and the punch list.” They also served as the architect-of-record for the interior exhibits spaces.

     The NASCAR project includes a 175,000-square-foot Hall of Fame and Museum, a 100,000-square-foot ballroom, a 427,000-square-foot tower and office building, and a 1,000-space parking garage.

     “You may have a beautiful design, but if it’s poorly executed, the design fails,” says Tobin. “People underestimate what can go wrong on the job site.

     “We were the job site ‘rat;’ the eyes, ears, and mouth on the construction site, working with the owner, architects and contractors on a daily basis to facilitate communications, toubleshoot problems and help keep the project on schedule and in budget while advocating for the proper execution of the design.”


Diversity Partners

     Tobin Starr +Partners is an 11-year-old architectural firm, small by design, focused on a practice that “actively engages its clients” and builds on the two partners’ diverse talents and backgrounds.

     “We strive to be strategic, creative and responsible,” says Starr of his 12-person team. “We listen to our clients and engage them in the project. We want to be sure our proposals meet our clients’ requirements and resources. We work closely with clients throughout the process to provide them with insightful solutions.”

     The group has worked on projects ranging from a $100,000 remodeling project to a $12 million campus master plan and for clients ranging from private residence owners to multi-national Fortune 100 corporations.

     “Our work is really diverse and creative,” says Tobin. “We work for some very interesting clients.”

     With a background in architecture, interior design, graphic design and branding, Starr leads the restaurant and retail side of the business. Starr was the architect of award-winning environments for clients such as Bank of America, Krispy Kreme, Dean & Deluca, the Biltmore Estate, Plow and Hearth and Firebirds before joining his current firm.

     He’s recently developed prototypes and branding campaigns for Brixx Wood-Fired Pizza and is architect-of-record for the new Emeril’s restaurant scheduled to open at the Levine Cultural Campus of the Duke Energy Center in the fall.

     Tobin’s first architectural project was assisting in a major renovation of Carnegie Hall in New York City. With his concentration on civic, community, cultural and higher education buildings, his planning and design work includes the strategic campus master plan for Columbia College in S.C., ABN Amro Bank World Headquarters in Amsterdam, International Cultural and Trade Center of the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., the Sculpture Garden Cafe at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Mess Hall at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Va.

     “We try to collaborate as much as possible when it makes sense for us to overlap and it’s healthy for both,” says Tobin.

     “Our practice builds on our strategic partners’ areas of expertise,” says Starr. “We don’t believe we need to be able to do everything; we can be the ringleaders.”


Brand Clarity

     Starr helps clients create, or clarify, a brand for their retail environment. Clarifying and distilling brand principles, a process he describes as “corporate psychotherapy,” he conducts programming sessions with clients and helps them “communicate a message through a building.”

     “We look at the 3D environment as a means to communicate our client’s brand and key messages to their customers,” says Starr. “We can create corporate standards for specific products and retail environments.”

     Pandora, a jewelry company based in Copenhagen, Denmark, chose Starr as consulting architect to lead its build-out in the U.S. The company sells jewelry in the range of $30 to $3,000, ranging from sterling silver to 18K gold with stones. Charlotte stores are located in South Park Mall and in Blakeney.

     “We’re expanding very aggressively and we needed to develop consistency in branding across our retail stores in North America,” says Jeff Matthews, retail project manager for Pandora Jewelry LLC.

     Pandora expects to open 100 new U.S. stores this year. Matthew’s project involves architectural branding, putting together a development manual and standards, including the specs, design criteria and options for franchise owners to open stores.

     “The concept,” says Matthews, “is very clean and European with lots of white and sleek designs. It includes all the information for furniture, fixtures, cash registers, electrical and IT work; everything you need to build your store.” Matthews has worked with Starr with other retail clients for many years.

     “Steve is one of the smartest people that I know,” says Matthews. “I really appreciate his honesty. He definitely challenges me—in a good way—and I can trust that he’s speaking from experience when he makes me think harder about my ideas and the issues we’re considering.”

     Matthews says when he first started working with Starr, he took him to a Pandora store, where Starr proceeded to pick up every catalogue to take home and study.

     “He really dives into the company and its products to truly understand it before he proposes any architectural work,” says Matthews. “Steve surrounds himself with the same kind of people. There’s so much value in what they do.”


Fascinating Projects

     The Charlotte Fire Department wanted a new headquarters, a permanent building that would: consolidate different divisions, last for years, fit in its site and show the public that the building is worth the money spent on it. Tobin Starr + Partners won the job in an RFQ competitive bid process, where they submitted both the proposal and select team members to design the new building scheduled to begin construction the first quarter next year on the corners of Graham and Statesville Aves.

     “It’s hard for a fireman to take this kind of time,” says Rich Granger, deputy fire chief, “when we’re used to doing everything in a matter of minutes.”

     “The fire department is an institution in the city of Charlotte—and we wanted to be able to tell people where we are, who we are and how to get to us,” Granger says. “We worked with David to design a very traditional brick and steel structure, a two-story rectangular building.”

     “It’s been a fascinating project,” says Tobin. “The Fire Department has been a bit invisible over the years. The Fire Department command staff are rightfully proud of the organization and interested in designing a building that will last for generations to come.”

     “They designed a building with a nostalgic look, not one that looks like a fire station. It will have a traditional brick façade, steel windows and a distinctive entryway with a Maltese Cross, the traditional symbol of fire companies with both the Fire Department and City of Charlotte emblems,” explains Granger.

     “I’ll be honest with you, we’re a tough customer,” says Granger. “I wasn’t sure what it would be like. But it’s been a pleasant process designing this building with David and his staff.”

     The renovation of UNC Charlotte’s Prospector Bookstore was a project combining Starr’s brand development work with Tobin’s public building design. UNC Charlotte administrators were interested in creating a new branded concept to appeal to a targeted student group—commuters.

     “We took a split-level building with a second-floor level cafeteria/food court and gutted the middle and lower levels,” says Tobin. “We reclad two exterior facades and added a new grand staircase and elevator to the core of the building to better reach the main food court and two new food service and dining concepts.”

     “UNC Charlotte wanted to create its own branded concept. They wanted a somewhat limited food menu for students who wanted something quick with good food that wouldn’t require a lot of storage,” says Starr. “We helped them develop Feisty’s, a gourmet hot dog service that will serve hot dogs with gourmet toppings, hand-cut French fries, sausage, vegetables and a new drink, the Orange Feisty, a smoothie-like drink.”

     The lower level of the building, says Starr, includes a post office and Repros, a new branded copy center. The building is scheduled to open this month. An added bonus was that the 25,000-square-foot project came in 20 percent under budget, says Starr, saving a significant amount of money for the UNC campus.


Stoking the Future

     The firm’s expertise in different sectors has given it the ability to weather the recent economic nosedive well. Just as one sector was dipping, another sector was headed up.

     “In 2008-2009, the consumer retail world went off a cliff,” says Starr, ‘but the civic, cultural world was holding steady.”

     The firm was fully engaged in its higher education work at UNC Charlotte, Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

     By 2010, the restaurant and hospitality sectors picked up with projects such as the Pandora Jewelry, Brixx Wood-Fired Pizza, Emeril’s restaurant and Delta’s Soul Food.

     “We’ve stayed between 11 to 13 employees for the last three years,” says Tobin. “We weathered the storm much better than most companies. We were actually flat and we didn’t have to make any changes in our staffing levels. We’ve been careful not to get too overconfident.”

     But with an increasing workload and the expectation of more to come, the firm recently hired another senior level architect. Building in the Charlotte region appears to be on the horizon for Tobin Starr + Partners.



Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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