2020 Facility Of The Year Construction Winner: Metro Self Storage, South Brunswick, N.J.

Posted by Poppy Behrens on Dec 11, 2020 12:00:00 AM

It’s not always easy to find that “sweet spot” in a secondary market—a location where the population density is strong, the median income is high, traffic levels are robust, and competition is minimal. But Metro Self Storage of Lake Forest, Ill., managed to accomplish this feat and more, reaping the rewards of their diligence.

To mark this achievement, the new Metro Self Storage facility in South Brunswick, N.J., is the winner of Mini-Storage Messenger’s 2020 Facility of the Year Award for the Construction category. While the project was not without its challenges, the company’s skillful coordination enabled it to flourish after overcoming an unexpected series of obstacles.

The new outlet is located on U.S. 1 in Monmouth Junction, an unincorporated area within South Brunswick Township. Part of the New York City metroplex, the community is situated at the southern end of Middlesex County, about 30 miles from lower Manhattan.

According to Bob Heilman, vice president of development for Metro, the specific location was chosen after a careful analysis of three principle demographic factors: vehicular traffic, rooftops (population), and local per capita income. Another consideration was the level of competition.

The targeted area checked all the boxes. “Monmouth Junction/South Brunswick is a densely populated, fairly high-end community, confirmed by the presence of several national retailers,” explains Heilman.

Only one competing storage facility is located nearby (and is over 10 years old), while the site offers high visibility–evidenced by 500 feet of frontage, high traffic volume on U.S. 1, a fast food outlet next door, and several retail strip centers. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the community has a total population of over 43,000 and a density of 1,068 per square mile. A few noteworthy names come from South Brunswick, including musician Don Fagen of Steely Dan fame and Pulitzer Prize winning author Anna Quindlen.

Site Situations
Once the location was chosen, the first issues involved the site itself. A ravine bisected the property, which necessitated a regrading of the site to create a sufficiently large plateau for construction to proceed. In addition, more than 50 percent of the 21-acre site consisted of protected wetlands, which mandated a barrier separating the natural area with the portion to be developed.

Sophisticated topographical software aided in this process, allowing the civil engineer to determine the optimal location of the plateau while plotting the precise path for the required retaining wall. The program also calculated the amount of backfill needed.

In addition, local code required construction of a retention basin to collect stormwater runoff. Concurrent with the planning of Metro’s project, another developer was preparing to build a residential community on an adjacent site that would be subject to the same requirement. The most logical solution—building a larger basin to be shared by both developments—proved difficult in practice due to a myriad of permitting and other requirements. Sorting it all out required time consuming and sometimes tedious negotiations between three parties: the two developers and the township.

The process was not for the faint of heart. “After lengthy discussions, we finally came to an agreement where Metro would construct the basin and obtain the necessary approvals. After that, we also had to obtain a variance from the township board of zoning appeals, since it did not allow for self-storage,” says Heilman. “So, between the basin, use approval, and the zoning variance, we spent the better part of two years getting all the approvals we needed before actually doing the construction.”

But then one final surprise emerged. Soon after excavation began, contractors uncovered a buried cache of jersey barriers, probably dating from the 1950s. Jersey barriers are movable concrete partitions used by road crews to separate lanes of traffic during construction. Metro officials had been told to expect some barriers, but they were shocked to discover far more than anticipated.

“We had no idea how many were there,” says Chris Arnold, director of construction, “so in addition to the other earthwork, the site had to be severely undercut to remove the barriers. We were fortunate to have a great site contactor who could balance this task with the work on the retaining walls and retention basin.”

After removing the barriers, the contractor crushed and ground them for use as structural fill. Effective coordination between the site contactor and Metro’s construction superintendent mitigated delays and kept the project on schedule.

Daniel Franks of the Chicago architectural firm Sullivan, Goulette & Wilson, which designs all of Metro’s projects, was the architect of record. Franks explains that while designing the retention basin required close coordination with the civil engineer, this type of situation is actually quite common.

“The site required some very precise grading to make certain the runoff would properly drain into the retention basin and guard against water infiltration into the units,” says Frank. “But we deal with both sloping and flat sites, and with almost all projects some sort of on-site retention basin in required. Most communities don’t want runoff to enter the municipal storm sewers.” Where a site lacks adequate space, underground tanks are often used as an alternative.

Construction work at Monmouth Junction, as at all Metro projects, was performed by subcontractors but under the close management of a superintendent working directly for the company.

“Since we’re building our own property, we handle the acquisition and permitting process in house, then hire a superintendent to be on site and work with all the subcontractors,” explains Arnold. Upon completion, the building is turned over to Metro’s in-house property management team. “We use a ‘one-stop-shop’ process.”

Focus On Customer Experience
Metro Storage South Brunswick is designed to optimize the customer experience. Heilman explains the reasoning behind the features included in the project. “Metro always designs a Class-A facility that keeps its customer top of mind. When you’re entering a new market, you look at what the competition has and determine what is going to differentiate your store while allowing you to effectively serve the needs of the community,” he says.

“At the same time, we have to remain mindful of the costs, and balance those priorities accordingly,” adds Paul J. Richards, director of learning and project management.

Some of the new features reflect recent trends in the industry, which are shaped from customer input. At South Brunswick, a good example is the enclosed bay with 14-foot clearance and a capacity of two trucks for loading and offloading. “Since this store wasn’t built for a Southern climate, we prefer the customer be indoors in a controlled space for offloading that has the capability of handling the largest box trucks,” says Heilman.

The two-story main building offers both interior and exterior climate-controlled units, since New Jersey has an average January low of 22 degrees. Some units have extra high ceilings. An elevator is available to access the second story. Interior units can be accessed through the loading bay, which also features Clopay clear glass overhead doors and epoxy coated floors to enhance both safety and appearance. Efficient LED lighting activated by motion sensors illuminates all hallways and storage units.

The facility also includes three outbuildings offering ambient outdoor units for tenants not in need of climate-controlled space. The structures offer drive-up convenience and are separated by extra wide driveways, allowing for two-way traffic.

“We think we’ve offered the best of both worlds,” says Arnold, referring to the mix of units.
Additional features in the main building include canopy covered entry doors that lead to the spacious retail/office area. “Metro worked with our office to come up with the design ideas,” says Franks. Far from being an afterthought, the space offers an interior environment that is light, airy, and welcoming. The office includes a display area for merchandise, a service desk, and amenities like a comfortable sitting area complete with TV, fireplace, and coffee bar. Courtesies offered by staff include moving carts and package acceptance.

These refinements represent an important evolution in the industry. “When I came here 14 years ago, my image of self-storage was these little drive about buildings with nothing but a lot of roll-up doors. Now they’re modern, state-of-the-art, high security, well-lit structures that are very user friendly,” says Franks, adding that female customers will feel especially comfortable.

Another thoughtful touch for the indoor units is windows at the end of each hallway to allow in sunlight. While this does result in a sacrifice of some rentable space, Metro feels the added sense of safety it provides to customers makes it worthwhile.

High-Tech Features
To help manage Metro South Brunswick properly, the company turned to storEDGE of Westwood, Kan. storEDGE is a comprehensive provider of technological solutions tailored to the self-storage industry, including software and online platforms for customer use. Metro uses their proprietary management software with the Rental Center module.

Since Metro uses storEDGE universally, the software’s online functionality enables interaction from multiple channels. Customers can lease from any facility online, while staff at the company’s call centers can assist patrons who require personal guidance. Established tenants can make rent payments online.

“Metro is a very forward-thinking company, and they want to offer their customers the very best experience,” says Austin Jones, director of sales at storEDGE. “With our product, they’re able to move in online via the Metro website, sign a contract electronically, lease up, and try to be as paperless as possible.”

The customer facing piece of the program (the Rental Center) is built on top of the portion reserved for management via an API (Application Program Interface). Since the software is cloud based, managers at both the store and corporate levels are able to access critical functions such as cash flow, occupancy rates, and other data in real time.

Effective and reliable gate equipment is essential in assuring facility security. On its face, it would seem that gate security is a simple function—protect the premises and admit only those authorized. But like anything, there are nuances.

PTI Security Systems of Scottsdale, Ariz., provided state-of-the-industry equipment. For South Brunswick, Metro selected a system featuring premier keypads with integrated intercoms. The software allows tenants access only to the area of the facility where their unit is located. The integrated intercom allows for voice communication with the office to field customer questions.

To deny access to delinquent customers, PTI is able to integrate with storEDGE or any other major property management system. “This two-way sync allows Metro to automatically grant and restrict access to the facility based on a tenant’s payment status and customize zone access or access hours based on any special criterion set by Metro Storage,” explains PTI Director of Marketing Chadwick Macferran.

“PTI is proud to support Metro Self Storage in their mission to create a safe and secure facility for their tenants while ensuring a best-in-class customer experience,” says Macferran.

That technical flexibility comes in handy. Because of the adjacent residential neighborhood, Metro must limit its operating hours. Instead of the typical 24/7 model, tenants can access their units from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. Office hours are extensive, serving customers from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.

Comprehensive Marketing
Effective marketing, both pre- and post-opening, completed the picture. Richards explains that the website for the new store went live several months in advance. The site, which is optimized to achieve high search engine rankings, represents the core online marketing initiative. Highly targeted, paid online ads and parallel efforts on social media supplement the website.

“A robust social media campaign through Facebook, Twitter, and the Metro Storage blog all serve to create brand awareness of the new store in the local market,” says Richards. “As a result of the website, social media, and organic and paid campaigns, we had over 25 reservations ready to move in on opening day.”

Richards adds that listings were established on Google, Yelp, and other online listing boards after South Brunswick opened. This move yielded several 5-star reviews almost immediately. All the online marketing steps are continuing.

Online marketing in augmented by more traditional or “offline” initiatives. These include reaching out to the local chamber of commerce, placing ads in printed community guides, and establishing relationships with related businesses, such as local realtors, movers, and apartment dwellings.

But Richards points out that the most effective marketing tools might be the building itself. “It’s a real beacon on a road with a high traffic count. We put signage in the third-floor windows to signal our opening.”

A Stellar Start
Metro South Brunswick opened on July 10, 2020. The occupancy ramp-up was swift, reaching a rate of 17.4 percent by October, which exceeded the company’s three-month goal. Metro officials expect full occupancy to be reached in about two years.

When a new business opens, its success often hinges on the relationship forged with the local community, since, in addition to customers, the best testimonials often come from the local municipality. This is another area where Metro excels. Ron Schmalz, spokesman for the Township of South Brunswick, explains the civic pride in adding Metro to the community.

“The property the facility was built upon was previously undeveloped and generated little tax revenue,” says Schmalz. “Since Metro’s opening, it’s represented a plus all around by generating more commercial activity. It’s location on U.S. 1 offers great visibility.”

Schmalz explains that the compromise required in the form of limited hours of operation due to the nearby housing has been well accepted. “In a residential zone, we try to have commercial activity end by 8 p.m. We haven’t had an issue, and I’m the person who would get those calls if there were,” he says. “The parties have managed to coexist well.”

This refreshing level of openness represents a welcome change for the industry. With quality locations like Metro South Brunswick, self-storage is no longer perceived as an eyesore belonging to backwater locations but as a mainstay of American commerce.