2017 Conversion Facility of the Year Winner: Metro Storage, Skokie, Ill.

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Converting a former furniture store and health club into a storage facility might seem like a typical conversion, but for Metro Storage, located at 3220 W. Touhy in Skokie, Ill., it was anything but typical.

The small lot didn’t make the project economically feasible, but that didn’t detour the company. They decided to literally raise the roof, which created more space for storage and also a very unique design for the facility.

The $6.4 million project has seemingly paid off, proving very successful for the company.

Filling Empty Space

Metro Storage isn’t new to the conversion of old buildings into storage facilities. The company has in recent years converted a liquor store in Deer, Wisc.; an auto dealership in Blaine, Minn.; and they are currently working on a five-story conversion of a building materials warehouse in North Plainfield, N.J.

“We have worked on five or six conversions in the past two years,” says Chris Arnold, director of construction for Metro Storage, which is based in Lake Forest, Ill.

When the property in Skokie became available, the company was ready for the due diligence by the Metro acquisition team to ensure its viability. Conversions cannot be located just anywhere, though. Like all self-storage facilities, they must be in a fairly—if not highly—visible area. Warehouses and other industrial properties typically do not work for conversions if they are located in industrial parks.

The Metro Self Storage facility in Skokie is in a highly visible retail area with surrounding residential. The acquisitions team determined the market demographics (the mix of residential, industrial, and commercial properties surrounding the property) met the demand. The high traffic counts in front of the facility also made it the perfect location for self-storage.

Although the site was the perfect fit for location, there were several challenges with the property:

  • The site would have to be subdivided into two separate lots and the lot for the storage facility would have to be rezoned to M3 industrial from B2 commercial. M3 industrial is the zoning in the city that supports self-storage. However, this also had a benefit: It provided an opportunity to carve out a very marketable out lot for the resale to help reduce the cost basis on the overall project.
  • The square footage of the building as it existed was too small to make this an economically feasible project, requiring significant creativity on the part of the design team to utilize the available space.
  • Heavy demolition would be needed to clear architectural features and interior fixtures already in place from the prior occupants.

“I think if you asked 10 guys, most would say it would be easier to build from scratch, but easiest isn’t always better,” says Bob Heilman, vice president of development for Metro Storage.

Municipalities have met many self-storage developers in recent years with much skepticism, with some projects taking literally years to complete due to complicated zoning and opposition from neighbors and county and city leaders. This wasn’t the case in Skokie and was the least of the challenges on this project. “The town of Skokie was very friendly and welcoming,” says Heilman. “The town didn’t require a whole lot of hoops for us to jump through other than what is normally required.”

The other challenges proved more consuming.

The Details

Jason Klinker, RA, ALA, project architect for Sullivan, Goulette & Wilson, Ltd., based in Chicago, Ill., has worked on many self-storage projects and was the project architect for the Metro Storage in Skokie. “Conversion projects are always unique as you are trying to fit a new program into a space that is typically designed for an entirely different use,” says Klinker. “That nearly always leads to unique challenges.”

The space for Metro Storage was formerly a Wick’s Furniture store and a health club. The building had been vacant for about five years. The design was a single-story strip mall facility, and Metro Storage needed to convert it into a two-story building.

“It’s not uncommon for us to add a second floor within the building shell when we are converting a warehouse, or similar type building, with very high clear interior spaces,” says Klinker. Although the furniture store had a type of loft for offices, it didn’t meet the standards of a true second floor. “Unfortunately, this building didn’t quite have the height we needed.”

Unfortunately, replacing all the interior structural systems and constructing a new roof was cost prohibitive. “After discussions with the team at Metro Storage, we decided the best method would be to lift the roof,” says Klinker. “This would allow us to reuse the existing structural and roofing systems, with minor modifications to extend column lengths and build up the exterior wall.”

Lifting the roof was definitely the biggest challenge for this project. “All total, we lifted it about 12 feet, and it required a lot of coordination above and beyond what we typically would see,” Klinker says. “There are contractors out there that specialize in this type of work, but figuring out how their work and engineering interfaces with our structural, engineer, and architectural design required a bit of work.”   

Klinker and the Metro team created a bold, open design with a mezzanine system, making the once one-story building look like it always had two floors.

“Another challenge with these types of buildings is getting the locker layout, which is typically on a 10-by-10 grid, to fit within the existing footprint and accommodate the existing column layouts,” says Klinker. “Avoiding columns in the hallways, minimizing uncommon unit sizes, maintaining a logical layout so we don’t end up in a maze, and maintaining Metro’s required unit mix, all added to that challenge.”

The facility, which was 60,000 square feet before the roof was raised, ballooned to 83,808 square feet with 840 units.

The design of the outside of any facility is just as important as the design inside, as this is what is going to attract customers. The Metro Storage project presented some unique outdoor aesthetic challenges, as the building was constructed in 1990, making the exterior dated.

“Getting a desired look on the exterior of the building with a minimal budget also posed a challenge,” says Klinker. “The building sets pretty far back from the primary thoroughfare and the architectural language was dated with fairly timid massing. I had this open frame pink and green towers that showed up at the corners, which was adding emphasis to the insignificant portions of the building and detracted from the entrances.”

The primary goals were to create a more prominent presence that would be noticeable from the street, while adding massing elements to emphasize and give a hierarchy to the programmatic elements, and to create a more modern, clean, and safe appearance. “Lifting the roof helped to add the visual weight to the building,” Klinker says. “We used color variation and additional architectural elements like canopies, second-level storefronts, and material transitions to create the emphasis on the office and loading area entrances. We utilized the existing first-floor storefronts and added a few more, which helps the building feel more transparent and safer. It also allows for natural light and helps to advertise the building as a storage facility.”

Klinker’s favorite design element of the project is the office. “The slightly raised parapet and gray EIFS helps that mass to stand out,” Klinker says. “The canopy and landscaping bed out front helps bring the scale down as you approach the entrance, and having the extra storefront helps the building glow in the evenings. It also lines up with the entry drive, so it really grabs your attention as you drive by. It really has a very clean look to it.”

Metro Storage also likes to incorporate green building practices in its projects. This storage facility was designed with numerous energy efficient windows that were spaced apart to allow natural light into corridors and public areas.

Klinker adds that working with Metro Self Storage is always a good experience. “We do a number of projects with Metro Storage, and they have been great to work with. They have a good understanding of the process and bring a lot of good ideas to the table,” says Klinker. “As a company, they have a clear emphasis on creating a positive experience for their customers. This starts with creating high-quality facilities and ends with top-notch staff. It makes projects, especially conversions that require some creativity, a lot more fun, and ultimately leads to successful projects.”

Raising The Roof  

The biggest part of the conversion was raising the roof 11.5 feet to create the second floor. This was done by using pneumatic jacks. The free-floating roof structure was stabilized until it was tied back into the exterior load bearing masonry walls.

Two exterior walls that had deteriorated over time also had to be restructured to support the new second floor and roof load. Additionally, a new roof membrane was added to the entire building.

According to Arnold, the main challenge with lifting the roof is that it had to be done in November and December, which is not an optimal time of the year in Illinois. “It did go pretty smooth,” says Arnold. “We lifted it over a week or so and then it took another week to tie the structure back together.”

The entire building was gutted, which didn’t present much of a challenge on the side that the furniture store held, but the health club had to have all of the floors ripped out, as well as shower areas.

“When working with existing structures, there are always unknowns, you can always uncover something not aware of,” says Arnold.

Some of the unknowns in this project included the walls being in worse condition than originally thought. “Given the level of construction in 1990, we expected it to be in better condition,” says Heilman. “There were a few areas that were problematic; the walls and some borders in the walls had to be reinforced. In some spots, the floor levels didn’t match, just little stuff that adds up when you get into it.”

One of the things outside that had to be dealt with was the drainage and storm sewers. Bob Walker, an engineer for Bono Consulting in Naperville, Ill., says he had to make sure the doors and pavement matched and add storm sewers. “We had to make sure to reuse as much of the original infrastructure as possible and save site costs,” Walker notes.

All of the systems didn’t need a completely overhaul, however. The fire system on both sides of the building was a quality system and the electrical was still in good shape. “We just had to rework them because it was designed for two separate users, and we had to modify them for one,” says Heilman. “We also had to redesign the system for two floors; it was a redistribution.”

Another design feature originally in the building worked well for Metro Storage. The furniture store had two large garage doors for loading. These were filled in and transformed into drive-in loading bays for tenants, providing a more functional access for customers.

The facility has three loading bays and elevators. “This really makes this facility very user friendly, along with the ample parking area,” says Arnold. The facility also has several commercial storage units with outdoor access on the backside of the building.

Janus International provided the door and hallway systems for the project. “The only challenge we had was loading the systems through the second floor windows, but that is pretty standard on a multi-level building,” says Jamie Tuck, Midwest sales manager for Janus. “Metro is really building top-notch facilities, and they do excellent work.”

PTI Security Systems provided the fully integrated security system. The facility includes four of PTIs state of the art Apex keypads, which have a display screen with the ability to add custom messages and bill payment. The keypads also include intercoms to the office, which allows customers who have forgotten their code to call the office for immediate assistance. PTI’s features also allows Metro to offer features like drive-up gate access and lighting controls. “Metro Storage continues to build premium storage facilities, and we’re proud to be their exclusive access control provider,” says Christine DeBord, marketing and reseller channel manager.

Yardi Systems in Salt Lake City, Utah, provided the cloud-based software called Store Enterprise, which enables managers to automate payments and delinquency notices. “We provide very powerful tools to the best operators,” says James Hafen, general manager and principle for inside sales for Yardi.

Marketing Metro

Metro Storage – Skokie opened in August 2016, but the marketing work began earlier. “Before the store even opens, we establish an online presence,” says P.J. Richards, director of marketing for Metro Storage. Social media, as well as business listings, are a priority, and about a month and a half before opening, the website goes up.

In addition to an extensive online marketing campaign with its partner, G5, the facility and its managers also did and continue a traditional “boots on the ground” marketing campaign. “We work with the chamber and get our manager out visiting condos, moving companies,” says Richards.

Since opening, the facility has already established a presence in the community and online.

Evidently, that type of marketing has paid off. The company officials describe the Skokie facility as “doing very well”. Current occupancy is at 48 percent, which is well ahead of its proforma.

DEVELOPMENT TEAM

Owner: Metro Storage LLC
Builder: Metro Storage LLC General Contractor
Architect: Sullivan, Goulette & Wilson, Ltd.
Engineer: Bono Consulting, Inc.
Management Software: Yardi
Security System: PTI Security Systems
Partitions & Doors: Janus International

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist based in the Ozark Mountains. She is a regular contributor to MiniCo’s publications. Her business articles have also appeared in Entrepreneur, Aol.com, MSN.com, and The Kansas City Star.

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