Adopting New-Urbanism Design Principles When Building Mixed-Use Self-Storage Projects

Adopting New-Urbanism Design Principles When Building Mixed-Use Self-Storage Projects

A mixed-use approach can help self-storage projects gain approval in places where they were never accepted before; but moving into retail and residential areas requires adaptations to facility design. Learn how adopting the principles of new urbanism creates solutions.

With today's “live, work, play” focus, mixed-use projects that include self-storage meet the growing demand for multiple-use buildings. But while the concept seems simple, execution isn’t always easy. There are many considerations if you’re building self-storage and retail, or self-storage and multi-family residential, which seem to be the most commonly developed complexes. They include zoning, aesthetics, parking, and other unique requirements. To gain acceptance from the jurisdiction and the community, consider adapting the principles of new urbanism.

The Principles

When self-storage started moving from commercial, industrial areas to Main Street, greater emphasis was placed on aesthetics and contextual fit in design. For that we can be grateful, as some of the industry’s most interesting and attractive facilities have been constructed in the last three to five years. What’s driving this is an increased call for “live, work, play” buildings and communities, in both urban and suburban settings.

At the forefront of the movement is “new urbanism,” which isn’t really all that new. Dating back to the 1980s and 90s, it emphasizes several design and planning philosophies, including the intentional creation of a sense of community, and the incorporation of ecological and sustainable building principles and practices. Here are 10 principles being applied to a variety of projects, from single buildings to entire communities, from newurbanism.org:

  • Walkability: Most things within a 10-minute walk from home or work
  • Connectivity: Interconnected street grid
  • Diversity: Mix of shops, offices and homes
  • Mixed housing: Range of types, sizes and prices
  • Quality architecture (urban design): Emphasis on aesthetics, creating a sense of place, human scale
  • Traditional neighborhood structure: Public space at center
  • Increased density: Create a more convenient, efficient use of services
  • Green transportation: Pedestrian-friendly, encourage use of bicycles, walking, etc.
  • Sustainability: Energy-efficient, eco-friendly technologies
  • Quality of life: Places that enrich, uplift and inspire

What is new urbanism?

Project Approvals

For self-storage owners and developers looking to build where the municipality has adopted these standards, the process of gaining approvals can be time-consuming, costly and frustrating. You should expect the typical challenges of educating the community and, in some cases, the city planning, zoning and architectural-review committees about the nature of self-storage. Few people understand or accept that our business is a low-impact land use and less demanding of community services such as water, sewer, landfill, etc.

In addition, expect to justify the business need for the other real estate uses, the most common being retail and multi-family residential. It’s likely these will have different requirements for parking, density, open space and design than the self-storage portion. Municipalities may hold the project to high design standards for greenspace, landscaping, parking ratios (which might be excessive), use of community artwork, and residential design criteria including particular styles, massing, colors and materials that’ll cause the project to fit in rather than emphasize its function.

Site Design and Compromise

Designing your facility can be one of the most taxing aspects of the mixed-use development process. Again, I suggest you look to new-urbanism principles as a guide. While you might not be required to apply all of them, most municipalities want you to incorporate as many as possible—sometimes in conflict with the purpose of the building. Common trouble areas include colors, building profile, delineation of function and materials, and incorporation of open spaces.

In the project in the accompanying image, we wanted to showcase the self-storage operator’s logo and brand colors, but the city planning and zoning board was opposed because they said it was too “bright.” We believe the real objection was with it being a nontraditional design compared to the more muted Mediterranean colors being used in nearby residential communities.

The board went so far as to object to the materials we chose to skin the building. In keeping with the modern architecture, we chose a metallic-finish panel that was deemed inappropriate, though it was present in many commercial buildings throughout the city. Why it was fine for retail but not self-storage was never fully explained to us. Still, the municipality had the upper hand and the authority to approve or deny.

The delineation of a project’s front façade should tell the user something about the purpose of the building, but that messaging can be complicated when trying to serve dual purposes. For example, city officials wanted us to avoid views into the self-storage aisles. They also wanted us to showcase the retail portion of the project, though we wanted to showcase the self-storage units in display-type windows. The compromise was to have views into the building that only showed the unit walls and no roll-up doors.

Exterior window and door selection can also be problematic. For self-storage and retail, you typically want large glass doors. In this case, the city wanted us to use those but also wanted louvered windows, in complete contrast to the nature of retail and self-storage. We won that battle and left the louvres for another project and day.

Incorporating open space—a key principle of new urbanism—can be difficult, but it’s also an opportunity to engage customers in nontraditional ways and foster a sense of community. In our case, we added an outdoor dining facility to accommodate a potential restaurant, and an outdoor pedestrian plaza that would allow people to stop and relax. It’ll be heavily and beautifully landscaped with bike racks and public art—a sure way to turn objections about self-storage into positives. Clearly, it took away buildable square footage and added cost to the project, but we feel these elements will pay dividends in the end.

The real lesson learned is to stick to your guns and decide which things you must have and what you can do without, so you can work out compromises when necessary.

Third-Party Support

When building a mixed-use project, expect to pay for additional consultants on issues such as traffic, restaurant and kitchen, and signage and logo marketing. You might also be required to conduct a separate feasibility study for the retail component. Make sure your retail consultant has a clear understanding of how the two purposes will work together to create synergies and, hopefully, increase profitability. They’ll help you integrate the elements of use into a single design and business plan.

We’ve also found it beneficial to hire a lobbyist team experienced in real estate to advocate on your behalf. They’ll be familiar with the hot buttons and voting history of the various approval boards and will guide you through the overall process. They’re also an excellent resource for identifying suppliers and vendors.

To build a successful mixed-use project that includes self-storage and some other use, such as retail, start with a clear understanding of your customers, requirements and the area. Build relationships and leverage them within the community and municipality. Use experts to supplement your own experiences and capabilities and test the project’s feasibility and financing throughout the process. Things change and so should you. In the end, try to be a good community partner and resource. Good luck!

Josephine Hart is managing partner at Storage Development Partners LLC, with offices in Boca Raton, Fla., and Des Moines, Iowa. She previously served as CEO for National Land Partners LLC, one of the country’s largest buyers and sellers of recreational land and an executive with IBM. She has acted as an adviser to several startups and made early-stage investments in manufacturing, healthcare, technology and hospitality. For more information, call 770.880.5309 (cell), 561.247.4545 (office); e-mail josie@jhfla.com; visit www.storagepartners.us.

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