Storage as Art

Kimberly Hundley Comments
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Diane Botwin Alpert repressed a wave of revulsion when property consultants recommended a self-storage development for her property. “‘Yuck.’ That was my thought,” she says. “I was so sorry I couldn’t legitimately engage in retail in the neighborhood and commercial area because the market wouldn’t support it.”

Like many people, Alpert regarded storage as an unattractive if necessary service, the real estate equivalent of ugly feet. But since the feasibility study appeared to be accurate, she resolved to approach the business on her own terms as a woman and mother. “It would have to be reflective of my sensibilities,” she says, “something I could be proud of.”

To Alpert, this meant relying on the same values she used in raising her sons: high expectations, respectfulness, accountability, creativity and a sense of humor. The result is one of the most unusual self-storage facilities in the country. Flex Storage Systems of Topeka, Kan., has won architectural honors, but it ranks as more than an impressive building. It’s an organic child of the community, a flower of collaboration. If that’s not unusual enough, consider that Flex also mounted a major art exhibit within its walls, attracting several hundred visitors and national press.

In the Zone

In researching the industry, Alpert and her husband read “about 300” Inside Self-Storage magazines and attended the 2001 ISS Expo in Nashville, Tenn. They quickly learned zoning approval can be a mammoth obstacle for storage developers. “So many of them come in and try to slam into neighborhoods. Neighbors don’t like it, and they shouldn’t like it,” Alpert says. “Rather than brace myself for a fight, I went to the neighborhood association on the front end and showed them what I wanted to do.”

Alpert also presented her vision to city officials. This facility would be an economic spark in a depressed residential area near downtown Topeka. Every department at city hall was asked for ideas on design and sustainability. Together, they created a flexible zoning classification allowing the climate-controlled building to be converted to retail, as dictated by the community’s changing needs. Plus, Alpert agreed to reserve a pad site on the corner exclusively for retail development.

“It’s all geared toward stabilizing the neighborhood, which is how I conduct my business,” she says. “You can’t just be in a neighborhood; you have to be part of it.” When the zoning change went before the planning and zoning board, the facility received unanimous approval. Alpert says the entire neighborhood came out to show its support.

Winning Design

Flex Storage Systems’ architecture also proved a feat of synergy. Alpert called upon the Kansas City, Mo.-based architecture firm El Dorado Inc., known for innovative design. She challenged principal architect Josh Shelton to rethink the mundane and exploit the simplistic, telling him she wanted a facility that “effuses a sense of responsibility to the neighborhood and … initiates long-needed renewal.” After opening in April 2004, the facility won honor awards from the Kansas City and Central States chapters of the American Institute of Architects.

One common complaint among storage tenants, particularly women, is facilities tend to be dark and uninviting. Alpert made sure Shelton’s design placed a premium on illumination. The low-slung, 17,000-square-foot main building is encircled by panels of greenhouse plastic that lets in waves of natural, diffused daylight. “The roofline of the building shoots up, and as you open the door, you capture all the light coming in,” Alpert explains. “We used photocell lighting up and down all of our aisles. The architects also used cove lighting in the corners so they glow. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Shelton mixed concrete and prefab steel buildings with pine-plank flourishes and a sloping shed roof to add warmth and enhance aesthetics. Traditional metal roll-up doors were used but were painted in four subtle, appealing colors. Outside, Alpert planted plugs of natural Kansas plains grasses, enhancing the post-industrial, contemporary look. A writer for New York City-based Metropolitan Magazine deemed the result “the most beautiful mini-storage facility” she’d ever seen.

Moving In Moving Out

The art show, titled “Moving In Moving Out,” grew from El Dorado’s connection with Kansas City artist Jim Woodfill, who designed the facility’s sign. Eventually, local curator Hesse McGraw told Alpert that Flex would be an excellent place to install an exhibit. She was taken with the idea and commissioned works by five local artists. “I wanted to integrate myself into this community, and that’s how the art show came to be,” Alpert says. “It was a great opportunity to bring in people who ordinarily wouldn’t come into this part of Topeka.”

Again, collaboration reigned, with artists, architects and the owner communicating daily via e-mail to review artist Mike Sinclair’s photos of the neighborhood. The area had degenerated decades ago when the military base closed and investors transformed devalued homes into cheap rentals. The art pieces were crafted to reflect this history of decline as well as the potential for urban renewal, hence the exhibit’s name.

Artist Marcie Miller Gross’ installation, “Use-re-Use,” embraced the themes of storage and the reality of a struggling neighborhood: In the lobby, she neatly stacked hundreds of pounds of freshly washed clothing and towels bought from the thrift store next door. After the show, the items were redonated. Sinclair displayed dozens of photos taken of the surrounding area, including kids at the grade school.

“Moving In Moving Out” opened last fall, attracting more than 200 people to the launch. Over the next few weeks, school children, art teachers, university classes, city council members and other notable visitors came to the facility for tours and discussions. McGraw wrote that the exhibit was “a public collaboration that optimistically suffuses all who choose to participate.”

To Market, to Market

Alpert concedes an art exhibit is an offbeat way to publicize one’s storage facility. But it was right for Flex and for Alpert’ long-range community goals. “I think marketing is an elusive thing,” she says. “A lot of it is word-of-mouth with storage.”

Since development began on the Flex project, five other storage facilities have opened in the vicinity. How is Flex faring? Less than a year after opening, the main building with 131 climate-controlled units is well over 50 percent leased. The facility recently opened another 168 conventional units, which are renting daily.

The leading lady of the facility says she’s pleased with how Flex has progressed. “I think if women are going to be happy in business, they have to be true to who they are,” Alpert says. “Women bring a wonderful, intuitive sensibility to business.” For more information, call 785.267.2233.

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