Greg Van Cleave has always had a philosophy about life: “If something is supposed to happen, it does, and if it’s a struggle, it doesn’t.”
He says his latest project, Vineburg Wine & Self Storage, located at 1010 Napa Road in Sonoma, Calif., altered that philosophy a little. The 49,571-square-foot facility with 588 units that includes self-storage, RV storage, and wine storage, is the winner of the Facility of the Year for the specialty category.
The project, which suffered delays due to easement issues, a lawsuit, fires, floods, and a global pandemic, totaled about $13 million.
The project was a “labor of love,” for Van Cleave, according to Ray Tuohy, owner of TTN Self Storage Management, who knows the trials Van Cleave went through to see the project to fruition.
New Developer Does Homework
Van Cleave is a sheet metal contractor, but he started looking at self-storage as an investment about a decade ago. “I realized I probably wouldn’t be able to retire on just investments as comfortably as I wanted, so I began to look into developing something that is easy and low maintenance once it’s up and running,” explains Van Cleave.
Moreover, Van Cleave had been “fascinated” with self-storage since renting his first unit years ago. Then he found the perfect property six years ago, located at the corner of Napa Road and 8th Street East. Napa Road is a main artery between the Sonoma and Napa wineries. About 10,000 cars per day pass through the intersection. As well as being a direct route for people heading into wine country, it’s also a main road many local commuters use.
The 6.07-acre lot was for sale for $2.65 million, but Van Cleave secured the deal for $2 million. “I looked at several pieces of property, and many jurisdictions just didn’t want storage,” he says. “This one had the right zoning and heights and is on a scenic thoroughfare into wine country.”
Next, Van Cleave visited all the storage facilities in the area. “All of them were 100 percent occupied, but they didn’t have climate-controlled units, and I realized there was a need for it,” he explains. “It gets very hot in the summer.”
Due to its location, his wife suggested they add wine storage to the facility. “I thought that was a great idea,” says Van Cleave.
He then thought he was quickly on the road to development.
Van Cleave was smart, not jumping into an industry he didn’t know much about. He attended the trade show in Las Vegas and listened to the speakers. One of the speakers was Bruce Jordan with Jordan Architects in San Clemente, Calif. “He was talking about the modern facilities with all the security, and it was different than the ones I knew,” says Van Cleave. “This is a new era, and Bruce impressed me. I knew I wanted a state-of-the-art facility.”
At the next convention, Jordan introduced Van Cleave to other people in the industry. And Van Cleave felt he had a vision and feel for his project.
Van Cleave completed a feasibility study and secured his financing. He hired Jordan Architects to design the project. However, the first major problem arose when the design was submitted to the county for approval. Van Cleave learned they would have to set back the facility, which took up 1.5 acres of land. The title company also hadn’t picked up a nearly 100-year-old railroad easement, which Van Cleave had to end up purchasing for $200,000. The lawsuit, which was filed against the title company to vacate the eastern easement, was the first six-month delay in the project.
Van Cleave says the county has a notoriously stringent design review process, due to their careful attention to aesthetics blending in with the current surroundings. While the design team was going back and forth with the county, the Tubbs Fire hit the area in October 2017 and burned most of Van Cleave’s neighborhood. Although his house was spared, construction costs doubled, and contractors were in high demand to build back people’s homes and businesses.
In the meantime, David Meinecke, vice president of Jordan Architects, and Chuck Curry, who was the project manager, continued to work with the county to get the project approved.
When winter hit, local rains flooded the site. As a result of the flooding, the State Water Board demanded that an “established waterway,” which was a roadside ditch, be relocated on the property. This also required mitigation of all the plants from the original waterway bank. During that process, wetlands were discovered on the property, which also had to be mitigated.
Finally, it was discovered the water table was found to be higher than originally estimated, which resulted in the entire site having to be raised 12 inches. Van Cleave says they had to bring in 550 truck and trailer loads of dirt.
California is known for its tough environmental standards and mitigation. However, the costliest environmental mitigation was initiated by Van Cleave. He’d admired a very large oak tree on the property and says an arbor expert contacted him about dating the tree. Turns out, the tree is estimated to be 340 years old. “That’s older than our country,” says Van Cleave. “Imagine everything that tree has seen, what it’s survived.”
Van Cleave felt he needed to protect the tree, but to do so would cost him both time and money. “To save the tree, we had to redesign and move the retention basin,” says Kevin Fanning, president of Fannco Builders, Inc., in Clovis, Calif.
Once the retention pond was moved and the tree saved, the project was further delayed. “It was spring, and we learned that an endangered species of bird might nest in that tree, so we couldn’t do anything else until it got past nesting season,” says Van Cleave. The bird didn’t show, and construction finally proceeded.
The final hit to the project was the global COVID pandemic that hit in March 2020. Construction was shut down as the project wasn’t considered essential. Once reopened, it suffered several more delays as workers and even the entire steel crew contracted COVID at one point. “We had to hire a completely new steel crew,” says Fanning.
There was also a problem with supply chain shortages, mainly with concrete, which Van Cleave solved by using his contacts.
The project exceeded budget by about $8 million, according to Van Cleave. “The title company settled with me for $495,000, which is more than double what it cost to buy the railroad property. Once I got that doubled in size, I think the bank really believed in me. Live Oak Bank was wonderful.”
The Romance Of Wine Country
The county demanded the project stay aesthetically consistent with the surrounding area, but Jordan Architects also wanted Vineburg to represent the nostalgia and romance of the area while giving customers a secure feel of a modern storage facility. They designed the project with 150 linear feet of beautiful stone. It also features landscaped trellises to soften the long façade. “We went with a contemporary wine feel,” says Meinecke.
The county required a large setback off Napa Road, something the design team took advantage of by saving as much of the natural landscape as possible, including the giant oak. They utilized the front setback to contain the storm water and house the leach lines. There is a generous setback along Eighth Street as well, which will include a future public bike trail.
Meinecke says one of the key features of Vineburg is the fortress style layout that fulfills the county’s preference to have the RV spaces shielded from public view. “While effective and functional, the fortress style layout can have the appearance of being off-putting if careful design considerations weren’t made,” says Meinecke. “By implementing clean lines and elements of relief along Eighth Street, we were able to strike the appropriate balance of security and beauty.”
The office is easily found in the front, with the large, historic oak tree flanking the building. “The project entry seeks to make a statement with its barn wood façade, steel canopies, and vast expanse of storefront glazing,” says Meinecke. “Further complimenting the wine country feel is a water fountain with wine lockers that are visible from the right of way behind the storefront glass.”
Once entering the office, visitors see polished concrete floors and a welcome desk complete with accent lighting. To enhance the feeling of heightened security, monitors are displayed on the wall beyond the desk. Looking to the right, visitors see directly into the private wine storage room through large glass partitions. If tenants need to catch up on work while at the facility, there is complimentary Wi-Fi in the lobby, as well as a coffee bar. To the left is the entrance to the 3,000-square-foot pallet wine storage area for commercial wine storage.
“Designing the wine storage and office components was fun and interesting,” says Curry. “When driving by, you can see into the office, and the colors really brought it all together. The fountain feature was a good addition.”
Curry further says that although the project encountered enormous obstacles that may have made anyone cranky, Van Cleave kept it fun while keeping it real. “He really made it lighthearted,” he says, “and when we saw he was more at ease with everything happening, it made it good for us.”
Fanning agreed. “Our relationship with Greg is really good,” he says. “He was very good and very understanding each time there was an issue. I’d say he’s one of our more enjoyable clients.”
After 2.5 years of construction delays and delays in obtaining occupancy permits due to the pandemic, Vineberg was finally able to begin operations in August 2021.
Popping The Cork On Marketing
Vineburg offers both drive-up and climate-controlled self-storage, as well as private lockers for wine storage and pallet type storage for large collectors or commercial businesses such as restaurants, retail, wine shops, and wineries.
According to Spencer Tuohy, IT director for TNT Self Storage Management, getting marketing off the ground was a little more difficult, due to all the delays on the project. “As soon as we received a solid opening date, we started online marketing as well as placing ‘coming soon’ banners on site,” he says.
One of the challenges the marketing team didn’t expect was the difficulty in hiring a manager for the property after the height of the pandemic. “We advertised for workers, but it was a struggle getting people hired,” says Kadi Snyder, area manager for TNT. “We hired a great manager who really makes the site. Our strategy was to find someone with retail experience, more than self-storage experience.”
The self-storage portion of the project is marketed much like any storage with the website, PPC Google ads, direct mailers, and reaching out to local businesses. The area is more rural than many realize, which caused them to extend beyond the typical three- to five-mile radius to five to 10 miles. “There are a lot of vineyards,” says Spencer, “and these are bigger pieces of land with less density than you would imagine.”
Moreover, Ray explains that marketing the wine storage is harder than it may first appear in an area known as “wine country.” “It isn’t like we have a whole new market to sell to,” he says. “There aren’t many new wineries, collectors, or others who use wine storage. We are basically poaching tenants from the other facilities in the area due to being a superior product.”
In that vein, Vineburg is marketed for its strengths being a brand-new facility that has larger wine lockers and longer hours than most in the area. In addition to the careful attention to temperature and humidity control that keeps the wine in optimal conditions, the facility is cooled with solar, which Ray notes appeals to some environmentally sensitive people.
Vineburg also offers daily, weekly, and monthly wine storage for people and businesses who need that kind of flexibility.
Vineburg currently sits at 39 percent occupied.
Van Cleave now laughs when reminded of his life-long philosophy about things being meant to be if everything goes smoothly. “There were three other projects on that property that failed before they even got off the ground. Had I known I’d have to go through all this, maybe I don’t do it,” says Van Cleave. “But by the time the challenges started, I had my life savings wrapped up in the project.”
Van Cleave was then reminded of another philosophy his father taught him: “He always said there is nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it; don’t take no for an answer and just deal with anything that comes along.”
Despite his gumption, Van Cleave doesn’t think he would have gotten through it without doing research on the industry and surrounding himself with knowledgeable people. “Ray was with me, holding my hand, for basically five years,” he says.
Van Cleave is currently planning Phase II for Vineburg and will continue with his current design team and builders.
“It is an amazing, beautiful project,” he says, “and it’s a matter of pride for me that we succeeded.”
Opening date: July 2021
Site acreage: three-plus acres
Height: all ground level
Number of units: 580
Rentable area: 45,575 square feet with room to add 55,000 square feet
Occupancy: 39 percent as of mid-October 2021
Owner/manager: Greg Van Cleave
Builder: Kevin Fanning ConstructionArchitect: Jordan Architects
Security provider: PTI Security; Storlogix Mid Valley Alarm
Access system and smart locks: PTI Security
Management software system: Sitelink
Door and interior system: Janus International