Inside Self-Storage 2/98

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Over-and-Under in Oregon City

By Cecile Blaine

When customers see the two rows of self-storage buildings stacked on top of each other at Oregon City Secure Storage, some wonder "Where is the elevator?" Al Nichols, who manages the facility with his wife, Erma, tells them, "You don't need an elevator on the upper story." The unusual over-and-under construction, he explains, is simply a technique used to build on a steeply sloping piece of land. Both buildings share a retaining wall and have first-floor access.

Despite an attractive price, the 2.2-acre site's odd shape would have discouraged most developers. But not developer Glenn Kotara. He found the skinny lot that measures approximately 115 feet by 1,071 feet very attractive. Facing the busy four-lane Cascade Highway in this Portland suburb, it is also sandwiched between a K-Mart and a new apartment complex.

"This was a left-over piece of land, and it was one that was going to be difficult to develop," says Kotara, who has developed five facilities in Oregon.

Another reason most developers would have turned their noses up at the site was due to its location just a half-mile from a Shurgard facility and not far from another competitor-Moneysaver. But Kotara believed the challenge was worth it. Why? "We did some research and found that they were 90-some odd percent occupied," he says of the competition. "Rates were fairly high and stable, and we made our decision that the area could stand another mini storage."

On Sept. 23, 1996, Glenn M. Kotara Construction broke ground on the 356-unit, 51,800-square-foot property. Due to the fact that it wasn't practical to grade the land, Kotara decided to build two of the longest buildings back to back--one on the upside of the hill and the other on the down side, which required a retaining wall that was 410 feet long, 10 feet tall and 10 inches thick, with lots of heavy re-bar mesh throughout.

While the over-and-under technique is by no means revolutionary, Kotara, says it is unique to self-storage construction--especially the pricey, labor-intensive retaining wall. It not only requires more engineering, but takes longer and is more expensive to build. "At this point, there is a ton of money sitting there, but it's all covered up with dirt and building," he says of the retaining wall. "You can't even tell it's there. But it does the job. Had we not done that, we couldn't have used that site in that capacity."

Tech-Fast, the Tacoma, Wash.-based construction firm, provided the metal for the buildings, as well as additional guidance in designing and constructing the over-and-under buildings. A Shurgard facility in nearby Washington offered the closest example of that type of construction.

After Kotara's team broke ground on the six-building project, progress was repeatedly delayed by the weather. Rain came in torrents in what the developer says was one of the wettest years in memory. "The whole project was just a mud ball from the start," the developer explains. Add the muddy conditions to the fact that only one entrance was available for the concrete trucks, and you have chaos. On Nov. 3, the construction workers laid the first concrete slab--but not without hardship. "We had cement trucks lined up for miles," Kotara winces. "It was a real pain."

The first block wall of the facility was constructed Feb. 10, while the whole project was completed by June 1997. The pay-off came when Oregon City Secure Storage held its grand opening on June 15, 1997, the first of several new facilities in town to open its doors. "We paid our dues to (build) it through the winter."

Oregon City also required Kotara to build a water retention system on the site, adding additional time and money to the project. If the city had sized the drainage pipes adequately in the first place and there wasn't so much construction in the area, perhaps he wouldn't have needed to build the system. "Normally, you don't have to do that, but their drainage system is overused," he adds.

Kotara created Oregon City Secure Storage as a unique facility both from an engineering standpoint as well as from a visual one. Any savings Kotara perceived from the purchase of the odd-shaped piece of land disappeared by the time the project was completed. He had put his savings back into his investment through the water retention system and the 10-inch re-bar-enforced wall that supported an over-and-under structure. "I paid a fairly good price for what land is going for there, but I contributed it back to the cost of construction."

The finished product, which was about 35 percent occupied by early November 1997, has a wide variety of units, dominated by 10-by-10s and 10-by-20s:

  • 34 5-by-5s
  • 39 5-by-10s
  • 102 10-by-10s
  • 34 10-by-15s
  • 129 10-by-20s
  • 18 10-by-25s

The Oregon facility's customers are mostly residential; many are Californians who have recently moved to the area. Commercial clients include Radio Shack, a couple of certified public accountants and a community college.

In addition to running ads on the radio and in local newspapers, Nichols and his wife have the advantage of being able to negotiate rates with customers. "We have the flexibility, where a lot of the people (competitors) don't have that," he says. "It's always better to have somebody in the storage unit than to have it empty."

Community involvement has become a priority for the Nichols, who are members of the local chamber of commerce. In fact, they put on an event one weekend in October they call the Garage Sale Extravaganza, in which local residents were invited to the facility to sell their household goods. A live-radio remote and concessions from the local community college were provided. The event drew more than 500 people.

Nichols was so happy with the response, he is considering an encore. "That seems to be a pretty good stimulus," he says. "We may even do it again this spring sometime."

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