Metro Self Storage, Northbrook, IL
In Cook County, Ill., on Chicago’s North Shore, is an affluent village named Northbrook. It is a relatively small community, consisting of 13.255 square miles of land and slightly less than 34,000 residents. Albeit quaint, families enjoy a median income of $124,916—one aspect that makes it a suitable location for a storybook self-storage facility like Metro Self Storage, Mini-Storage Messenger’s 2016 Facility of the Year conversion winner.
The new Northbrook location, one of the more recent additions to Metro Self Storage’s national portfolio of facilities, represents an attractive marriage of form and function—with a dash of good business acumen added in. The $3.6 million project is housed in a retrofitted former warehouse that offers 660 climate-controlled units, consisting of 95,400 square feet, on two levels, and an impressive array of bells and whistles, which combined make the facility an industry standout. Features include high capacity loading elevators, an efficient and pleasant working space for office staff, and plenty of curb appeal—a necessity in an upscale community. Meanwhile, state-of-the-art technology and software secure the premises, help keep the books, and provide a bevy of conveniences to customers.
Delivering such a polished jewel to the marketplace required the partnership of the owner and a cast of supporting players, including an architect, civil engineer, security provider, software developer, and others.
A family-owned company based in nearby Lake Forest, Ill., Metro Storage LLC was founded in 1973 and currently has 100 stores in 17 states located throughout the Midwest, South, and mid-Atlantic regions. The company is currently in the throes of a growth phase, which it’s implementing by executing three strategies: new construction, purchasing functioning stores, and acquiring and retrofitting existing buildings.
“We have teams in the organization that go out and look for potential new sites—land for new construction, buildings to convert, or functioning facilities to take over. Once they make their suggestions, they turn it over to Bob Heilman and Chris Arnold, who make the decisions and implement them,” explains Paul Richards, director of learning and project management.
In the case of the Northbrook site, that process began in 2015 when company scouts began to search for potential new locations in the Upper Midwest. The desirable Chicago suburb was high on their radar.
“We saw in Northbrook a fairly prosperous area with high population density and a low level of competition,” Richards says. “There was only one other self-storage facility in Northbrook, located on the other side of town, and which has since closed. Our research indicated that while the barrier to entry would be high, the return could be considerable. Once we found a suitable location, we jumped on it.”
Located within the greater north shores area, the Northbrook store is situated on a major road and adjacent to a commuter rail line leading to downtown Chicago in addition to being near community fixtures such as the local high school and the small downtown business district. It’s also close to the Glen Town Center, a former Naval Air Station retrofitted into a large “lifestyle community” consisting of high-end retail and luxury apartments. This demographic provides a strong potential client base for the new facility. The neighborhood also includes some light industry, which provides Metro with a bit of commercial trade, according to Bob Heilman, vice president of development.
“Our location in a light industrial complex, complemented by a dense, fairly affluent suburban residential area, provides us with a great place to operate,” says Richards.
Chris Urbanczyk, owner of Urban & Associates Architects of Northbrook, and a professional who specializes in the construction and retrofitting of self-storage facilities, explains some of the design features that went into the project. “We wanted the building to have strong visibility from the street, so we added a corner tower that exceeds the height of the rest of the structure and is glass enclosed on three sides, topped by an overhanging roof, while the lower portion is clad in stone.”
“The tower is both decorative and functional. In addition to attracting attention, it also serves as an open and airy space for the business offices,” says Urbanczyk. An atrium-style design was used, allowing the visitor to look straight up and enjoy the natural sunlight. An employee break room and bathroom facilities are located on the top floor. “At night it’s lit up, which has a dramatic impact.”
The site selected for the Northbrook project was originally built as a single-story warehouse, a fact that presented special challenges.
“It’s always more difficult working an existing structure,” states Urbanczyk. “Before we could design anything, we had to survey the entire building, documenting all the systems and dimensions, an extra step not required with new construction. And, in this case, we only had some of the original drawings.”
Once the existing structure was fully cataloged, and the exterior style decided on, Urbanczyk set to work determining arrangement of various sized units, the locations of elevators, and the positioning of corridors—all with an eye toward achieving maximum efficiency and convenience for customers and staff. Particularly challenging was the job of transforming what had been a single-story warehouse into a two-floor storage venue.
In doing so it became necessary to request a few variances from the local building codes. One involved the limitation on total floor space, made necessary by the inclusion of a second-story mezzanine. Another variance on the total number of parking spaces was required. Taken together, these challenges translated to considerable delays in beginning the conversion process.
Nonetheless, Urbanczyk found his client to be a thoroughly professional partner. “Metro is a great company to work with and a very collaborative one,” he says. “During the design phase, we were able to bounce ideas around and come up with an attractive final plan.”
Urbanczyk’s client list includes other major players in the self-storage industry; he’s recognized as an expert in the field, designing both conversions and newly constructed facilities. Regarding the former, he made the parenthetical comment that the decline of manufacturing and other traditional industries has left many unused structures suitable for conversion to self-storage.
Working in conjunction with the architect was the civil engineer, Dan Havlir of Northwestern Engineering Consultants of Palatine, Ill. Besides providing the normal site and utility plans required for any project, special attention had to be given to grading and drainage provisions. The site lies within the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which uniformly requires watershed management permits for new projects. Havlir explains that the process was more cumbersome in this case based on site conditions.
“The permit process for the project was complicated by the fact that the building is bordered on two sides by a creek, and a portion of the new parking lot on the west side of the building was constructed within the 100-year flood plain,” says Havlir. “In order to compensate for the fill required for the new parking lot, a new storm water detention facility was constructed towards the rear (east side) of the site, in the former location of an old parking lot that was no longer needed.”
The nature of self-storage facility operation—one which involves a high degree of movement of customers and staff—creates a strong need to protect the premises from vandalism, theft, and fraud. To provide for this need, Metro selected PTI Security Systems of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Effective security has two essential elements: physical barriers and sophisticated software. While the gates, fences, and customer keypads at Metro Northbrook are among the industry’s best, the unseen computer security application reigns as state of the art. The program, called StorLogix, is one of PTI’s proprietary security system/software programs. StorLogix seamlessly controls customer access, site security, and the portion of facility management directly related to security.
On the surface, StorLogix provides the standard set up (a gate with an intercom equipped keypad), but underneath the hood it reveals its true sophistication. The program is highly adept at regulating customer ingress, using the information embedded in each customer’s code to regulate which gate and/or door opens so as limit access to only the hallway where the tenant’s unit is located.
Another feature is digital video integration, which links entries in the program’s event log to the corresponding video footage. If it becomes necessary to examine the camera feed, StorLogix can facilitate easy review either in the office or via a secure, password protected website. This feature provides convivence to the manager, especially when she or he is responsible for multiple facilities in far flung locations.
Enhanced compatibility with other software platforms is another feature. StorLogix is able to seamlessly interface with Store Enterprise 4.0, the master program used for tracking payments, rentals, and lockouts. When the management program updates a customer’s account, StorLogix’s file is simultaneously amended.
Such integration is tricky. “Interfacing with management software built on divergent protocols can be difficult, but we try to agnostic in that our goal is to be compatible with as many as possible,” explains Jeff Flowers, COO and CFO of PTI Security.
“StorLogix is also scalable,” Flowers says. “It can allow a site manager to monitor activity at their individual store, but can also allow an owner of several facilities to keep tabs on their full portfolio.” StorLogix can also sync customer access times with employees’ schedules and regulate the different levels of access between employees and managers.
Flowers also makes the point that the features provided by StorLogix provide the owner with an advantage by offering prospects greater security and convenience, a helpful selling point.
Store Enterprise 4.0, supplied by the Yardi company of Salt Lake City, is the true brains of the operation—at least on the technology side. Yardi is a comprehensive software company with a diverse range of property management programs serving a wide swath of industries. Teaming up with Metro, their long-term partnership has contributed to the latter’s ability to grow exponentially and enabled it to efficiently manage multiple stores scattered over several states.
The software is built on an “open architecture” model, which allows for maximum flexibility. Its core functions include maintenance of tenant ledgers, rent collections, and receiving of online messages posted by customers—all fully synced with the password protected customer side of Metro’s website. Company managers can access this information from any Internet connection. It even has the capability of performing third-party integrations, including a “tap in” with a central mailing house to print and send out paper mailings to customers when warranted. The program can email promotional messages to customers as well.
Like StorLogix, Store Enterprise 4.0 is also scalable in that it can generate site specific reports for any one of a virtually unlimited number of facilities or for the company’s total operations. Scalability also refers to the program’s ability to interface with other technologies such as call centers and customer kiosks.
“We’ve been a partner with Metro for a very long time, and we’re certain that what we bring to the table has helped them grow and succeed over the years,” explains Yardi executive Mark Smith.
A Tale Worth Sharing
After the long, painstaking process of planning, coordination, and construction, the new Metro Storage of Northbrook opened on March 8, 2016. As impressive as the new store was, however, company officials knew that effective, multichannel marketing would be essential for its success.
“Our years in business have allowed us to develop a reliable model for promoting our properties,” says Richards. “One thing we do is get our new stores listed on our website well ahead of its opening—a full year if possible. This allows us to begin taking reservations a few months before the doors open. Additionally, our website is optimized to drive organic traffic, which we complement with a paid online advertising campaign through both Google and Bing. Lastly, we follow these efforts up with ‘boots on the ground’ traditional style marketing. Our managers fan out through the surrounding neighborhood, distributing flyers to apartment complexes and other high density places. We also form relationships with the local chamber of commerce and the various fraternal organizations.”
The effort paid off. Richards notes that new customers flowed through the door beginning with the very first day to sign rental agreements. Subsequent weeks saw continued activity. Currently the facility is in ramp up or “lease out” mode, which is proceeding ahead of schedule.
Metro Self Storage’s contribution to Northbrook has been noticed by local government leaders. Sandra Frum, village president of Northbrook, speaks with pride when asked about the arrival of Metro and what it means for the community—both aesthetically and economically: “Metro Self Storage has proven to be a great addition to Northbrook. The owners took a bland looking, under utilized building and made it an attractive area focal point. Having a self-storage facility in town—we had none previously—also fulfills a real community need while bolstering our tax rolls. Their location is on the edge of an industrial park, but at the same time it’s close to their intended customers, mostly from the Glen Town Center. Metro fills an economic hole in our community and has proven to be a great synergy for Northbrook.”
Frum also points out that no tax incentives or abatements were needed to bring Metro to town.
In sum, Metro Self Storage Northbrook exemplifies its parent company’s excellence in service, efficiency, and entrepreneurship—the hallmarks of a real industry leader.
Facility Owner: Metro Storage LLC
General Contractor: Merto Storage LLC, Bob Heilman, Chris Arnold
Architect: Urban & Associates Architects, Inc.
Engineer: Northwest Engineering, Inc.
Doors: Clopay Model 9-3
Interior Systems: Janus International
Security Systems: Everfocus, PTI Security Systems
Management Software: Yardi
Paul Vachon is a freelance writer and editor based in Detroit. He is the author of four books and has contributed to publications such as Pacific Standard, Preservation, HOUR Detroit, Michigan History, and Costco Connection.