The top floor of the Berry Building was scorching hot when John Ott gave a tour of the red-brick warehouse at the northeast corner of Walnut and Orr streets.

Plastic buckets were lined up to catch leaking rainwater, and Ott said a top priority of his renovation project will be to put a new roof on the 30,000-square-foot building.

The cheapest way to help cool the building might be to put in a heavy layer of insulation and a drop ceiling, but Ott plans to keep the rustic look of the exposed wooden beams.

“People like the character of old buildings,” Ott said.

There is pent-up demand for downtown housing in Columbia, and Ott and other developers are hoping to match the success of loft conversion projects in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield.

Ott obtained the rights to develop the building in a lease-purchase arrangement with the Geiger Co., which has used the building for storage for the last 50 years.

Ott’s vision for the building includes loft apartments on the top two floors, with potential retail space at Walnut Street level, and commercial space on the lower level.

At the northeast corner, a limestone structure formerly used for meat storage makes the ideal location for a cozy corner bar, Ott said.

“The building has a lot of character,” Ott said. “We’re eager to give people a chance to enjoy it for housing and retail.”

The three-story red-brick structure was built in 1915 by a wholesale grocer named Berry who died a year later. The grocery warehouse, located near a railroad spur, supplied a large number of mom-and-pop grocers in the city, and the Nowell family used it for supplying grocery stores. Most recently, Wal-Mart used the warehouse to store tires.

Ott plans to seek historic preservation tax credits for the project. “I think it will qualify for a historic renovation program,” he said.

Five small stores are operating on the street level: Rock Bottom Comics, Monarch Jewelry, The Vintage Shop, Chinatown and Dracosinister Blades.

The tenants will have to move out when the full-scale renovation begins later this year, and Ott said he will work with them to find new sites.

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