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A Complex Case Study: How a Mixed-Use Approach Ensured Success in a Detroit Self-Storage Conversion

While municipalities wish to see vacant buildings repurposed, self-storage isn’t always a top choice. Adding other uses to a project is often what’s needed to gain support and the proper zoning. That was the case on this complex mixed-use development in Detroit, converted from a former office. Read about all the factors that fell into place.

Peter Stuhlreyer

April 12, 2023

3 Min Read
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There’s an old cliché about stars aligning. In the case of a complex conversion project in Northern Detroit, where self-storage was needed and yet prohibited, many of them had to come together, indeed.

The building, which is miles from the proper zoning, had been developed as a multi-story office 25 years ago. Over time, the immediate population grew, as did traffic as well as commercial and residential development. Self-storage was now the perfect opportunity, but a little serendipity was necessary to win approval for this class-A, climate-controlled facility.

A Zoning Prospect

Sensing that this area was evolving, the city created a mixed-use overlay zone that would broaden allowable uses in the area. These are often created by municipalities so the predictable and intuitive zoning relief that’s anticipated based on near-future development patterns can be provided without developers having to deal with text amendments, variances, planned-unit development or rezoning. However, self-storage wasn’t listed as a potential use in this particular zone.

The rules say that once a site is approved for the overlay, the developer must list all proposed uses to be included and excluded from the underlying zoning district as adopted as well as all the other dimensional standards they or owner wish to modify. Typically, an owner would complete the adoption of the overlay to increase their parcel’s value and viability before selling. That was the case after this 110,000-square-foot office building lost its only tenant.

Favorable Alignment

The owner eventually ended up in conversation with a self-storage operator. They both knew there was potential to get self-storage included on the allowable-uses list for the land parcel, but what about the existing building?

A thorough analysis revealed that the structure was built to handle the necessary loads, which was unusual, as office loads are normally only half that of self-storage. I attribute this “over building” to the particular era, the original build-to-suit user and the region of Southeast Michigan.

The property also had nearly 800 parking spaces. Remember, the name of the overlay zone is “mixed use.” With that in mind, the parking lots were master-planned and parceled off for future pads that could accommodate hotels, senior living, retail and many other attractive and viable uses desired by the community. Without this particular symmetry, creating a mixed-use and forward-looking site that truly aligned with the zone’s objectives would’ve been much more difficult.

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A rendering of the converted building

The COVID-19 pandemic and the popularity of remote work were two more factors contributing to this fortunate alignment. Without them, office space in the center of town would not have been available. In fact, a 25-year-old, well-maintained and structurally sound building might’ve been converted to a variety of other uses, including residential. However, it wasn’t feasible due to the depth of the floor plate. It would be too deep for a good layout without sacrificing rentable space in the core of the building.

This inefficiency led the team closer to self-storage. Trending uses foreseen by the planners such as retail, medical office, fitness or hospitality also weren’t good fits for this vacant structure.

The market trend away from large offices was an unpredicted turn. Certainly, in this case, it was a built-in remedy in the community for planners to deploy the option of an overlay district. Growth in retail and residential is benefitted by climate-controlled storage. In this turn of events, the uses seemed to have harmonized.

Peter Stuhlreyer is chief architect for Designhaus LLC, which provides professional architectural services as well as interior and landscape design to self-storage and other business sectors. He’s been the architect for more than $250 million worth of commercial and residential construction. For more information, call 248.601.4422 or email [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Peter Stuhlreyer

Chief Architect, Designhaus LLC

Peter Stuhlreyer is chief architect for Designhaus LLC, which provides professional architectural services as well as interior and landscape design to self-storage and other business sectors. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, Peter has worked on projects for companies including The Bank of Tokyo, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and the World Trade Center. He’s been the architect for more than $250 million worth of commercial and residential construction. For more information, call 248.601.4422; email [email protected].

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