February 1, 1998

5 Min Read
Inside Self-Storage 2/98

Over-and-Under in Oregon City

By Cecile Blaine

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

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

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

Another reason most developers would have turned their nosesup at the site was due to its location just a half-mile from a Shurgard facility and not far from anothercompetitor-Moneysaver. But Kotara believed the challenge wasworth it. Why? "We did some research and found that theywere 90-some odd percent occupied," he says of thecompetition. "Rates were fairly high and stable, and we madeour decision that the area could stand another ministorage."

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

While the over-and-under technique is by no meansrevolutionary, Kotara, says it is unique to self-storageconstruction--especially the pricey, labor-intensive retainingwall. It not only requires more engineering, but takes longer andis more expensive to build. "At this point, there is a tonof money sitting there, but it's all covered up with dirt andbuilding," he says of the retaining wall. "You can'teven 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, providedthe metal for the buildings, as well as additional guidance indesigning and constructing the over-and-under buildings. AShurgard facility in nearby Washington offered the closestexample 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 intorrents in what the developer says was one of the wettest yearsin memory. "The whole project was just a mud ball from thestart," the developer explains. Add the muddy conditions tothe fact that only one entrance was available for the concretetrucks, and you have chaos. On Nov. 3, the construction workerslaid the first concrete slab--but not without hardship. "Wehad 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-offcame when Oregon City Secure Storage held its grand opening onJune 15, 1997, the first of several new facilities in town toopen its doors. "We paid our dues to (build) it through thewinter."

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

Kotara created Oregon City Secure Storage as a unique facilityboth from an engineering standpoint as well as from a visual one.Any savings Kotara perceived from the purchase of the odd-shapedpiece of land disappeared by the time the project was completed.He had put his savings back into his investment through the waterretention system and the 10-inch re-bar-enforced wall thatsupported an over-and-under structure. "I paid a fairly goodprice for what land is going for there, but I contributed it backto the cost of construction."

The finished product, which was about 35 percent occupied byearly November 1997, has a wide variety of units, dominated by10-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; manyare Californians who have recently moved to the area. Commercialclients include Radio Shack, a couple of certified publicaccountants and a community college.

In addition to running ads on the radio and in localnewspapers, Nichols and his wife have the advantage of being ableto negotiate rates with customers. "We have the flexibility,where a lot of the people (competitors) don't have that," hesays. "It's always better to have somebody in the storageunit 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, theyput on an event one weekend in October they call the Garage SaleExtravaganza, in which local residents were invited to thefacility to sell their household goods. A live-radio remote andconcessions from the local community college were provided. Theevent drew more than 500 people.

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

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