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Impediments and Solutions to Self-Storage Approval: A Tale of Two Projects

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By H. Edward Goldberg

Self-storage projects began cropping up along rural and suburban roadsides in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were typically the single-story variety, spread out over large tracts of land with appropriate zoning. Rarely were owners bothered by conflicts with neighbors or regulators. Times have changed.

Today, self-storage is moving into more readily accessible and buildable sites amid industrial parks as well as business, commercial and residential districts; though that often means facilities are built on smaller tracts. Smaller footprints mean taller structures. These parcels also require compromises to satisfy local organizations, regulators and municipalities.

The two greatest impediments facing self-storage developers are finding a suitable site and securing approval from local government entities. Though every project and site is unique, these challenges are common to all ventures.

When I began in the industry, development sites were widely available, and relatively few groups were concerned about the appearance of the structures. Today, there are few easy-to-develop sites, and those that do exist may be in areas with major restrictive covenants.

In this development climate, before you proceed with construction documentation, you need to assemble a project-approval team. This should comprise a capable civil engineer, an architect with self-storage design experience, and an attorney with comprehensive knowledge of the local real estate laws and covenants.

I recently designed two large multi-story self-storage projects, one in a suburban center and the other in a major city. I present them here as examples of the approval process. Both were difficult to actualize because of requirements and restrictions by the local governments. I had to jump through many hoops, frequently redesigning and seeking solutions, while every change created a ripple effect throughout the entire project. Following are brief summaries of the problems we faced and how we obtained final approval.

The Commerce Center Self Storage

This facility in Largo, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., sits on the only 2 acres of virgin land in a large development area called the Largo Town Center. Before beginning the design phase, I consulted with the owner’s attorney and civil engineer. The lawyer checked to see if self-storage was allowed in the district and what community-approval meetings would be necessary, while the engineer checked to see if sufficient utilities such as water and electricity were available to support the building.

It took more than a year to gain zoning and design approval for Commerce Center Self Storage, now under construction in Largo, Md. The site will be managed by CubeSmart and branded under its name.I researched any community standards that needed to be addressed. The Largo Town Center Development District Standards, which were available online, stated, “The development district standards contain regulations that impact the design and character of the Largo Town Center. The purpose of these standards is to shape high-quality public spaces with buildings and other physical features to create a strong sense of place for the Largo Town Center area consistent with the land use and urban design recommendations of the preliminary sector plan.”

From this, I learned the building-height limit (six stories), the allowed windows-to-wall ratio, the requirements for exterior surfaces, and awning and sign dimensions. I created a matrix that answered all these requirements and built an initial design. Then I could project the cost. Originally, I wanted to use split-face block for the first floor, but that was rejected by the community, so I substituted a white tile. I’ve found it’s a lot easier to work within a community’s design requirements than to fight them if the requests are reasonable.

The standards required that site-plan submittals include architectural elevations in full color, street and streetscape sections, build-to lines, and a parking schedule and plan. In presentations to community leaders, who tend to have difficulty reading architectural plans, I created clear graphs and three-dimensional visualizations that are much more effective than two-dimensional elevations. The process necessitated a series of follow-up meetings, but with good communication skills and a calm demeanor, I was able to achieve my goals.

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