Stone Mountain, GA.
By Amber Nickell
When Pace, a chain of warehouse stores, went bankrupt in the early '90s, it left dozens of spacious buildings empty. Kmart stepped in and bought the portfolio of properties--some were transformed to Kmart stores, others were sold to Wal-Mart, but many were left vacant.
One such building in Stone Mountain, Ga., caught the eye of The Devon Group, which owns 12 self-storage facilities, including one in Amsterdam. However, Kmart was already in negotiations with a buyer for the property. When the deal fell through, Kmart offered the property to The Devon Group, which accepted without hesitation, completing acquisition in April 1996.
"When we acquired it, it was a 97,759-square-foot box sitting on 15 acres of land," says Ken Nitzberg, CEO of The Devon Group. "The game plan was very simple: We convert the inside of the box to climate-controlled self-storage."
The conversion of the main building was completed in four phases. It essentially required demolishing some of the existing areas, such as office space, lunch rooms and rest rooms and erecting the metal units. The result was 646 units in 66,538 net rentable square feet. The first phase opened in October, followed by November, January and February with the opening of the second, third and fourth phases.
But what makes Devon Self Storage different from most conversions is the drive lane--which is wide enough for two semi trucks to drive side by side--that runs through the facility. After entering the property through the access-control gate, tenants with a unit in the main structure must enter their code again to open the 14-by-14 foot roll-up door that allows them to drive into the building. "If your unit happens to be right on the drive lane, you drive right to it, park, roll up the door and you're right there," Nitzberg says. "If your unit is further into the interior of the building, you drive to the nearest hallway and park. You put your belongings on a cart (provided by the facility) and wheel them to your unit." When tenants have concluded their business, they drive to the exit, where a sensor opens the door--also a 14-by-14 roll-up--and closes it behind them.
As a safety measure, traffic lights were installed at both the entry and exit. "When the customer enters his code, the door will start to raise and the red light comes on," says Wayne Rodgerson, project manager for the conversion. "The customers are asked to wait for the green light. When the door reaches the top, it hits a relay and only at that time does the green light come on. The same configuration is used for the rear door."
The drive-through facility has generated curiosity from both potential tenants and competitors. "We've found that the drive-through feature literally boggles our tenants' minds," Nitzberg says. "They've never seen anything like it; they've never experienced anything like it; they've never visualized anything like it."
The convenience of a drive-through facility is multiplied during inclement weather. Although the ceiling of the building reaches approximately 20 feet, the unit walls are only 8-feet, 8-inches tall. Therefore, rather than air-conditioning the individual units, the entire building is cooled and lighted from above. That means that during Georgia's warm, humid summers (or any other time of year), tenants go straight from their air-conditioned car into an air-conditioned building and enjoy the climate control while loading or unloading their units. In addition, tenants and their belongings are protected from wind, rain, dust and other undesirable weather.
The open-top units allow for creative use of video cameras in the main building. Rather than monitoring a single corridor or corner, cameras are strategically mounted above the unit partitions. From there, they can scan the entire building, including the inside of each unit. "If anyone tries to do anything and get over the top or in somebody else's unit, it's really easy to see them," Nitzberg says.
One of the problems with creating a drive-through self-storage facility--which Devon has done with many of its properties--is dealing with the local planning authorities. "They don't know quite what to do with us," Nitzberg says. "The minute you say, 'cars in the building,' the first mental picture that comes to the mind of city officials is a parking garage with 500 cars, with cars in and out all day long, non-stop."
This image raises concerns about exhaust fumes and leads authorities to suggest cost-prohibitive ventilation systems and other requirements for controlling air flow. But a self-storage facility has nowhere near the traffic of a parking garage--Nitzberg estimates an average of one car an hour--so there's little chance for emissions to accumulate.
"We usually end up spending a great deal of time educating the local regulatory agencies as to how these things work, what the dangers and risks are, how minimal they are and what we do to mitigate them," Nitzberg says. "Once we explain what we're doing and show some examples of what we've done elsewhere, they usually are pretty good. Some of the cities have been a little more contentious, a little more problematic than others, but in every city, at the end of the day, it's been OK."
Most warehouse-type stores are accompanied by an expansive parking lot, and the Devon property is no exception. In order to make full use of the land and to support facility recognition, several standard self-storage buildings were constructed. "We build those for a couple of reasons," Nitzberg says. "One reason being some people don't want to go inside; they want to be able to drive right to their door all the time. Secondly, some people don't want to pay the premium rent for climate control, so we have the non-climate control available as well. Third, and probably most important, (potential) tenants know the property as the Pace store. No matter how many signs you put up, they still see the old Pace store in their mind's eye until you build units on the outside with roll-up doors. The minute you put those buildings up, everybody knows it's a self-storage facility."
As of April, five non-climate-controlled buildings had added an additional 91 units and 11,550 net rentable square feet to the facility. And with lease-up rates hitting and surpassing targets, Nitzberg says the property likely will see more construction in the future. "We will build more (storage) space on what was the parking lot and literally keep building until we've used up the space--as long as the demand warrants."