One day back in 2014, Todd Amsdell got a return phone call from a broker about a property in Jupiter, Fla.
Amsdell is president and CEO of Cleveland, Ohio-based Amsdell Companies, a privately owned real estate company that specializes in construction, development and management of business parks, industrial parks and related commercial real estate, including self-storage facilities under the Compass Self Storage brand. He was intrigued by the Jupiter property’s potential for a self-storage facility, mainly because of its “exceptional” location on a busy road in “an uber-wealthy part of the world” with some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
As with any potential development property, he wondered about the 10-acre site’s basics, starting with whether it was zoned for self-storage. It wasn’t. It was originally slated for a commercial mixed-use development and a train station and transit hub as part of the master plan for Abacoa, a more than 2,000-acre mixed-use community in the city of Jupiter’s outer limits. Amsdell also learned that members of several neighboring planned communities strongly opposed having a self-storage facility so close to them.
In a market like Jupiter, “99% of the time … you’re going to hear, ‘It’s not going to happen” regarding a self-storage development, Amsdell says. But the broker he was working with said the property might work for storage. Amsdell told him, “You give me hope.”
After seven years of diligence with an unusually stringent process of convincing city officials to approve the project, the facility received its final certificate of occupancy. And Mini-Storage Messenger chose the facility for its 2021 Overall Facility of the Year Award.
“It’s not duplicatable today,” Amsdell says of the Jupiter facility. “Outside of that, considering where it is in the world, we really wanted to cater to (that wealthy market’s) self-storage and moving needs.”
That is reflected in the facility’s features, which include a backup power generator that runs the entire property, Nokē keyless locks, high-quality construction, larger doors than average, high-end security, ease of ingress and egress, and efficient layout. The entire facility “is a little bit overbuilt, a little bit better,” Amsdell says. “No corners cut. Just the opposite. If we had the opportunity to do any kind of upgrade, we did.”
A facility with all these features in a higher-rent market usually would be hard to justify based on return on investment, he says. An average facility is about 75,000 square feet. The Jupiter facility contains nearly 123,000 square feet. Building a facility this big “in any market is a gamble in itself.” But because Jupiter is such a high-end market based on density and wealth, Amsdell considered it a good investment, “and it has paid off.”
Another obstacle Amsdell faced with the project was that in 2015, a push to limit development generally in Jupiter was underway, “but definitely self-storage,” he says. This resulted in part from the city having approved a large development in 2010, which was completed in 2014. But the city “hadn’t thought it through.” If the development were to become successful, which it did, increased traffic, parking needs, demands on water and electricity, and noise would result, and they all did.
The Compass facility in Jupiter was behind schedule to open and when it did, it fell behind lease-up projections. But it quickly started leasing up faster than normal. As of late October 2021, it had about 60% occupancy. Amsdell attributes that speedy lease-up to there being “nothing like it in the market.” People are renting units because “where else will they get a climate-controlled unit you can drive your car into? Some clients rent five units for cars.”
“We want happy neighbors,” he says. “They’re going to be our first customers. If they’re not, then we’ve failed.”
According to Amsdell Companies’ written submission for consideration for Mini-Storage Messenger’s award:
- In 2015, the company applied for rezoning for its proposed three-story, climate-controlled self-storage building and climate- and non-climate-controlled drive-up buildings. It conducted traffic studies at a typical self-storage facility to try to prove the facility would not pose traffic problems. The city of Jupiter’s planning staff, planning commission and city council denied Amsdell’s application for the self-storage facility. The denial prohibited the company from resubmitting a substantially similar proposal for two years.
- In 2016, the company worked with a residential developer who was interested in a mixed-use development to include 20 to 30 townhomes and a multistory self-storage center with drive-up units. They submitted an application to the city, but the city rejected it because of ongoing concerns about additional traffic.
- In 2017, Amsdell Companies resubmitted a proposal for a solely self-storage project. The city and adjacent communities gave input on the proposal, which led the company to revise its plan to include more climate-controlled and drive-up units and to remove boat storage and truck rental. It also agreed to redesign the building with two-story and three-story sections for a more attractive site line and to add more than $700,000 worth of landscaping.
- In April 2018, the city gave final approval for the project, including easements for a possible future train station the city might build.
- Amsdell Companies agreed to the city’s strict architectural guidelines, including special facades and building materials.
- When site clearing started, it was discovered that gopher tortoises inhabited the land, so Amsdell Companies worked with a consultant to find the nests and relocate the animals to a sanctuary.
- The site received a temporary certificate of occupancy and starting renting units on March 29, 2021, and it received a final certificate of occupancy on May 12, 2021.
The project’s architect, Kenneth Carlson of Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Ken Carlson Architect P.A., says the Compass facility in Jupiter has a unique tilt-up structure. In tilt-up architecture, a structure’s walls are cast in place on the ground with design features such as reveals, openings and shapes normally not seen in other buildings, Carlson says. Then the walls are tipped up and secured. Panels usually are 25 feet to 30 feet apart on center with one joint. Other products can be easily integrated with the structure, such as metal paneling and canopies that can be attached to the building.
“It’s very durable over a building’s lifetime,” Carlson says. “The visual effect is that it’s nice and sharply detailed. We created some neat shapes in transitions to the second and third levels (in the Jupiter facility). We were able to integrate panels so it looks like a storefront with a curtain wall system. It looks like a see-through glass building in certain areas, with the security of a concrete wall behind it. If glass breaks, you still have 6 inches of concrete behind it.”
Another architect had taken the project through site development and worked with a land planner and created a site plan, floor plan and building elevations. Carlson was hired to complete the design. He has designed about 60 tilt-up buildings, including office buildings, industrial buildings, schools and churches and has won awards for some of his designs. He says self-storage is “part of the fabric and a necessary function for communities.”
According to the award consideration submission, the Jupiter facility’s construction and property highlights include the following:
- The facility’s architectural requirements stipulated that the building not look like a typical self-storage center. All unit doors had to face the property’s interior. Square footage allowance for signs was extremely limited.
- The facility’s state-of-the-art buildings are designed to withstand hurricanes and include hurricane-proof doors and shatter-resistant windows designed to withstand Category 5 hurricanes.
- The Nokē system enables customers to give a one-time code to their guests or employees to access their units. It also enables management to understand its customers’ use of the space and frequency of use at the property, data that can help with providing a better customer experience.
- The self-storage center offers both interior climate controlled units, regular drive up units and climate controlled drive up units.
- The facility offers extra tall elevators and high bay units, which eases moving and storing larger items.
- The property was built with high-end office finishes, including a full retail center for customers with digital communication boards to teach customers how to use the products. An educational digital display explains how to use the Nokē locks and gate.
- The facility’s robust security system includes several cameras throughout the property.
- The property offers a wide, covered loading bay and multiple access points with loading areas throughout.
- It also a speaker system for music throughout the interior buildings to help create a calm atmosphere for customers.
- Amsdell Companies/Compass Self Storage worked with neighboring communities and developed special promotions to help with pre-leasing. They created a marketing and customer service plan to emphasize that they would be good neighbors.
- Local marketing strategies including working with the Chamber of Commerce, publications and local businesses to let potential customers know the storage center would open soon.
- They executed a social media campaign that included drone footage of the property, and they showcased the facility’s unique features.
- Their marketing team also ensured that its online strategy of both organic and paid media was in place with a landing page for pre-leasing before the facility officially opened.
A five-star customer review on the facility’s website reads: “This is the greatest self storage place on earth. From the minute you walk in everyone is extremely polite and very helpful. I got a full tour of the storage and Spoke with the associates Heather, Melissa, and Leslie for a while, and they thoroughly explained everything from top to bottom. Great experience, I would definitely recommend this storage place.”
Amsdell’s advice for developers on how to best approach the challenge of unusually stringent municipal requirements for a proposed property focuses first on collaboration.
“I always think it’s time well spent to sit down with local builders, designers, and construction teams and get a feel from them what they think the city wants to hear,” he says. “Meet with the city early on, do your homework on zoning, and come in with questions for city officials. This all takes time, effort, and investment. Most of the time at successful properties, you hear (‘no’ more than ‘yes’). Self-storage is low on the acceptance list. The more face to face time you can spend with people and presenting a solid story with facts and figures the Self Storage Association puts out, the better. Prior planning prevents poor performance.”
As a taxpayer who is involved in his community, Amsdell sees cities’ concerns about how self-storage facilities will fit in as valid. But he believes in the service self-storage provides. Some self-storage facilities conjure Motel 6, but others call to mind the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton. It all depends on the locale.
“If people want to rent space, what issue are we protecting citizens against?” he says. “We need architectural review boards. With self-storage, it’s like talking about hotels eight years ago. Some self-storage is like Motel 6 and others are like the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton.”
As is typical, Amsdell Companies conducted an in-house market study as part of its due diligence for the Jupiter facility. Amsdell says he would not have been surprised if a market study had concluded that the project was too big and too expensive and that wealthy people don’t need self-storage. But his company “did know the market maybe a little bit better than most.”
“Our belief was that the market did need a self-storage facility that large, even with the rates that would need to be commensurate with the build cost,” he says. “Do you really a generator that can run for days and days and days for the entire property? Why don’t you just do something that keeps the elevators on, and cut costs? We felt from day one that it had to be first class. It’s a hurricane area … so we overbuilt everything. Our theory is that the new property will help sell itself, and if we get through a natural disaster here or there, that’ll help sell it, too. We’re really proud of the property. It shows the tenacity of our organization. We knew from day one it was not going to be a cakewalk. We wanted to show the city how beautiful it would be.”
Facility of the Year—Overall
Compass Self Storage: Jupiter, Fla.
Opening date: March 29, 2021; certificate of occupancy May 12, 2021
Rentable square footage: 122,723
Number of units: 1,020
Current occupancy: About 60% as of late October 2021
Owner: Amsdell Companies, Cleveland, Ohio
Builder: DC Construction, Boca Raton, Fla.
Architect: Ken Carlson Architects, Deerfield Beach, Fla.
Management software: Yardi, Santa Barbara, Calif.
Security system: Hatton Electric, Coral Springs, Fla.
Roof: Weather Guard Industries, North Miami, Fla.
Door and interior systems: Janus, Butler, Ind.
Keyless gate and door entrances: Janus/Nokē