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(December 2005)

Awarded by MiniStorage Messenger Magazine
Stor Beecaves

Bright, attractive, and ultra-contemporary with fantastic amenities, Austin Highway Self Storage in San Antonio, Texas, seems destined for success. Developers Robert Loeb and Brian Cisarik bought the property in August 2003. They knew going in that there would be many challenges to face building self-storage on the oddly-shaped, two-acre parcel in the heart of an urban revitalization area, but so far, all indications say their instincts were on the mark.

In the heart of North San Antonio and on the fringe of one of the city’s most affluent areas, the site had many advantages. In addition to the right demographics, its visibility from the five-lane Austin Highway seemed tailor-made for self-storage; but the project had its drawbacks. In fact, the project team had to overcome some thorny problems not commonly faced by self-storage developers. As such, Austin Highway Self Storage has been named the 2005 Facility of the Year Construction Winner.
A Neighborhood In Transition

Terrell Hills, the community in which Austin Highway Self Storage is located, is a neighborhood in transition. Some of San Antonio’s oldest affluent neighborhoods and finest homes are located in Terrell Hills and in the nearby communities of Alamo Heights and Olmos Park, all of which are accessed from Austin Highway. They were posh suburbs in the 1920s, but decades ago the area fell into decline and Austin Highway eventually became lined with seedy motels and other third-rate businesses. A few years ago, however, community members launched a determined campaign to revitalize the run-down enclave.

“It was spearheaded by private citizens and some city council members,” says Cisarik, who adds that it is an area of old, established wealth with multi-million-dollar homes. Still, when the developers bought the property, revitalization amounted to little more than wishes and rumors.

Charles Plunkett, president of Artistic Builders, Inc., the general contractor for the self-storage project, says that the opening of a Home Depot® on Austin Highway a few years ago provided the impetus for the fast-paced revitalization that is still taking place. “Growth brings growth,” Plunkett says—and the area’s recent growth has been phenomenal.

In the past two years, an attractive vocational school was built on the property east of Austin Highway Self Storage. West of the property, a carwash underwent renovation and a 50,000-square-foot, run-down shopping center got a facelift. Plunkett says along Austin Highway today only about two percent of the shabby-looking businesses remain. With a new infusion of progressive young professionals, he describes Alamo Heights as a “yuppie haven.”

In the residential neighborhoods, Cisarik says no land suitable for self-storage is available. There are several other storage facilities along the main road, many in close proximity to Austin Highway Self Storage, but for the most part they are badly maintained, first-generation sites that lack state-of-the-art security and amenities. The newest of these was built seven years ago. Loeb and Cisarik were willing to bet that discriminating residential and business customers in the area would be willing to pay for a high-end facility with good security, climate control, and the many other amenities the facility would feature.

“I wanted to be in the high end of the market,” says Loeb. “I wanted to build the nicest facility in San Antonio.” Although it’s an old, established neighborhood, Loeb describes Alamo Heights today as a “progressive, artsy, funky kind of area,” and says the design team’s objective was to create a building that would appeal to that type of person.
Maximizing A Challenging Site

An emerging neighborhood meant a higher property cost for the irregularly-shaped, two-acre parcel. “A retail business can afford to pay more for property,” Plunkett says, “but [Loeb and Cisarik] only wanted to develop self-storage.” That meant maximizing the use of every square foot of the property.

Construction began in June 2004. The front of the property is a narrow, 155-by-320-foot strip attached to a triangular-shaped parcel in the back that is 260 feet wide at its base, with 245- and 265-foot sides. In the front strip, a three-story, 75,525-square-foot, climate-controlled building (with a 95-by-265-foot footprint) backs up to the property line along one of its perimeter walls. It was the back parcel, however, that would present the greatest building challenge, and Plunkett says the owners had to build all the way to the back of the property to make the numbers work.

The soils condition of the property was the first hurdle to overcome. In the 1950s the property was a legal dump-site, and later, it became an illegal dumpsite. The geotechnical engineering firm required that existing dirt and debris be removed and replaced with four feet of structural fill.

A 15-foot drop from the front to the back portion of the property presented another challenge. The solution was a 15-foot geo-grid retaining wall, which Plunkett says is not only less expensive than a concrete vertical wall; it’s more attractive.

The costliest and most difficult problem to overcome was moving an existing sewer line that ran diagonally across the back parcel, 35 feet below the surface. Code would not allow the team to erect buildings over the sewer main, and buildings needed to be located above its path to maximize space. As a result, the mainline sanitary sewer system had to be abandoned and a new mainline installed to make maximum use of the property.

Getting to the sewer line turned out to be a real challenge. Plunkett’s team had to drill a 35-foot shaft and build a tunnel for the workers who would install the new pipe. Not only was the work strenuous, extra safety precautions were needed to avoid a cave-in. “It was like being a miner,” Plunkett says. “We had to put in a shaft with a hoisting system and a ventilation system. It was pretty serious stuff.” The new mainline sewer system is routed under the driveways. Adding to these costs, the facility required the addition of 300 feet of large water line along the city right-of-way to provide sufficient water for the sprinkler system. It also required the installation of two fire hydrants.
Functional And Fantastic

With construction issues resolved, the 538-unit facility was completed in March 2005. The street front portion of the property features a three-story, fully climate-controlled building with a modern, retro-industrial exterior. Use of the irregularly-shaped back parcel is maximized with 96 single-story drive-up units and 25-foot-wide drive aisles.

The facility’s buildings are constructed of CMU block exterior walls, steel framing, sections of metal sheathing, and synthetic stucco (EIFS) accents. Two elevators with upgraded finishes provide access to upper floors. In addition, keypad access controls ensure that elevators will only stop at the floor on which the customer’s unit is located.

The project architect, Robert Robinowitz from Houston, Texas-based, McIntyre + Robinowitz Architects, PLLC, says the biggest influence on design was the desire to build a facility that would stand out among the scores of businesses crowded along Austin Highway. He says the owners were open to allowing the design to develop in the direction of its unique context. “Many of the buildings in San Antonio use native stone, etc., but we felt that it would get lost on that street,” Robinowitz says.

From the beginning, the team wanted the building to have a retail presence. To accomplish that objective, Robinowitz created an interesting form. The main building’s most prominent architectural element is an angled chevron tower that projects from the building envelope and is five feet wider at its top than at its base. The tower’s striking exterior is finished with narrow corrugation, galvanized metal panels that are set horizontally. Created to break up a rectangular box and to accentuate the office/retail area, its design also incorporates generous windows that prominently display second- and third-story unit doors.

The rest of the exterior is painted bold electric blue, with bright tangerine orange added as an accent color on signage and on the storage doors visible through the glass. Robinowitz says the developers wanted something original, which made the project refreshing and exciting to the architectural firm.

Since much of the marketing effort for this facility is directed toward maintaining high visibility from the busy five-lane street, the developers allocated ample funds for signage, accented by flood lights, on the front and north sides of the building. In addition, a two-sided 32-foot pole sign with an electronic message board faces east and west. Lush native landscaping adds to the upscale feel of the project.
Interior Motives

The striking office and public spaces of Austin Self Storage give the facility an upmarket, retail character. A brilliant orange and vibrant blue color scheme provides the foundation for its cheery decor. The interior embodies the artistic, progressive ambiance the team hoped to create. Interior designer Suzanne Morse says they wanted decor that was colorful, clever, and would appeal to the customer base they serve. “People should enjoy going to a storage facility, and not dread going to it,” she explains.

Morse created the ultra-contemporary with vibrant blue or orange accent walls, clear maple furniture, brushed chrome, and dynamic art prints throughout the office area. The angled shape of the chevron tower is also repeated in some of the interior elements.

The office space includes a seating area with a flat screen television as well as a bright retail area where customers can purchase packing and moving supplies. The office features a contemporary maple counter with satin aluminum details. Affixed to its front is a mottled orange laminate piece that was shipped from Italy. The smart décor in the conference room includes a clear maple table and console, black leather chairs, a brushed chrome lamp, and orange art glass.

With all of the interior traffic these fabulous amenities are likely to create, Morse paid much attention to detail in the men’s and women’s restrooms. Carrying through the bold colors and themes, she incorporated contemporary artwork, brushed stainless fixtures, and an artist-created faux finish on the walls created with troweled plaster and a glazing technique.

In addition, Morse created a patterned design for the decorative scored concrete floors. The floors were fashioned with a polishing method in which diamond-loaded sanders grind the concrete to 1,800 grit in a nine-step

process. The later steps include polishing with an impregnating sealer that gives the floor a high sheen, which can be easily revitalized after wear. The facility’s hallway systems also feature polished concrete floors.

Provided by Janus International, based in Temple, Ga., the interior systems include five-foot-wide corridors with full ceiling soffits. “As for the Janus material supplied,” says marketing director Shannon Conrady, “we furnished galvalume third-generation model 650 doors and galvalume headers, which seem to be an up-and-coming trend—especially in that region of country. Inside, we furnished the glossy white corrugated hallway system with the Janus model 650 doors and typical solid light ceiling soffit.”

Austin Highway Self Storage’s unique amenities include the offering of 13 mini-offices with private entry doors that provide a perfect center of operation for many small businesses. Each office is carpeted and features a drop ceiling and pre-wiring for high-speed internet access and individual telephone lines. The offices include a private access door to an adjoining storage unit. The developers’ other San Antonio location has successfully leased 22 mini-offices. Although they create more traffic, tenants tend to stay for long periods. Rental rates, Loeb says, are priced between what clients would pay for storage space and for commercial office space.
Advanced Technology

Genius Design of Bay City, Texas, installed a Digitech security system with features unmatched by any of the area’s other self-storage businesses. It includes state-of-the-art video surveillance with 16 color cameras, a digital recording system, individual unit door alarms, intercoms and music throughout, and keypad access to the gate and elevator floors. Three flat-screen monitors suspended on the wall behind the counter provide a clutter-free look and a heightened sense of security for customers. “I think it’s important, if you’re going to be in the high end of the market, to have features you can sell,” Loeb says.

Terri Bristol, manager of the South Central region for Asheville, N.C.-based, Digitech International began working with Cisarik in the beginning stages of the Austin Highway development. “He starts out early and plans his projects well in advance,” she says, adding that Cisarik is very hands on when it comes to security. “Brian wants to provide the most secure facility possible for his customers—to serve their needs but also to protect the building and their property.” The fully integrated system disarms the unit door alarm when the customer keys in at the gate. It also tracks customer activity and prints a report.

Another behind-the-scenes enhancement Loeb and Cisarik invested in is a SiteLink software system loaded with features that make operating a self-storage facility seem easy. SiteLink manages billing, tracks clients, tracks rents, prints leases and invoices, and not only reminds managers when customers are late but will automatically lock them out of the gate after a particular past due date. It also takes payments and reservations from a Web site.

Markus Hecker of Raleigh, N.C.-based, SMD Software, Inc. says Loeb and Cisarik were especially interested in the software’s features that allow owners to track marketing. “It tracks who your clients are, why they’re storing, and why they leased with you,” Hecker says, “so you can better maximize your advertising dollars.” Regardless of any bells and whistles a software package may offer, Hecker says that whether an owner likes the product or not nearly always comes down to the quality of service they received. “The number one draw to our customers is our technical support,” he says. SMD offers turnkey set-up with manager training.

Yellow Pages ads were in place months before the project’s completion to bring in pre-opening reservations, and a great Web site gives information on both of the developer’s San Antonio facilities. Cisarik and Loeb are also the owners of Castle Hills Self Storage, which opened in March 2002.

The June grand opening of Austin Highway Self Storage was an all-day community event. Guests were served lunch and dinner under a large tent, and could also take tours of the facility. By September, the facility was already 28 percent leased. “We’re ahead of our proforma, and I feel good about that,” Loeb says.

Certainly, the facility has all of the features today’s self-storage shoppers desire. All members of the development team are proud of the project’s results. “It was truly a collaborative effort,” says Morse, who says she is pleased that the facility looks nothing like what she would expect a storage business to look like. “I think we’ve really enhanced Austin Highway.”

Many Thanks to the MiniStorage Magazine

This article is provided courtesy of Artistic Builders Inc., with the permission of Mini-Storage Messenger magazine. © MiniCo, Inc. All Rights Reserved. It is not intended for further reproduction/distribution without the exclusive permission of MiniCo, Inc.


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