If no one loves you when you're old and gray, could it be a consequence of the fire code?
If you're an over-aged commercial building--sitting forlornly with your windows punched out on your little plot of Southern California real estate--the answer could be a resounding yes.
While the scarcity and high cost of prime land here has added new appeal to the recycling of infill commercial real estate--modernizing and upgrading old buildings to a higher usage--three conditions can throw a big question mark over many such candidates, according to Byron Pinckert of Irvine-based Hill Pinckert Architects.
"They're not an automatic disqualifier," Pinckert said, "but they're certainly constraints that have to be looked at very carefully--the fire code, the seismic code and the parking requirement."
In Orange County, for instance, he continued, a resolution was passed recently requiring any building of more than 6,000 square feet to have a sprinkler system. "And very few buildings will comply with that that have been built recently in the smaller neighborhoods. It has a tremendous impact, structurally, in terms of the added weight on the roofing system."
Seismic requirements, which go back to 1933, but were tightened even further after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, can seriously impact the economic feasibility of rehabilitating an existing building, but to what degree varies more widely by the type of building than conforming to the fire code does, Pinckert said.
"If you're working with industrial buildings, where they have so much wall area, anyway, it's usually not all that difficult to bring them up to standards. But with office and retail property, you're usually getting into a much bigger problem, and frequently it's a marginal decision as to whether it's more economic to rehab them or tear them down and start over," Pinckert added.
For the 7-year-old architectural firm, 80% of whose work is for commercial developers, gravitating into a specialty of recycling existing buildings is a natural reflection of its clients' interest in a field where economic, social and demographic changes constantly fuel a market of buildings caught in the backwash--under-utilized, undervalued, or both.
Auto Agency to Mall
As a case in point, Pinckert cited a former car dealership in East Los Angeles where the changing character of the neighborhood had stripped it of its viability as a dealership--but which left it, still, with high visibility, good access, good traffic count and in an area where the population need had shifted to personal services.
The solution: conversion of the dealership to a three-level retail mall, Plaza del Sol, with parking on the upper level and the addition of 80,000 new feet of retail space.
"Fortunately," Pinckert said, "because of its use as a car dealership, the parking was already in place. As a consequence, the developer saved about 40% over what it would have cost to go from the ground up, from scratch."
Parking space, or conversely, the lack of it, is every bit as much of a constraint on rehabbing a building, as conforming to the fire and seismic codes are, he added.
"You've got to have a minimum of four parking spaces for 1,000 square feet of space," Pinckert said, "and, if it's a single-story structure, the building can't cover more than 36% of the site. Or 45% for a two-story structure. Most older industrial buildings, unfortunately, have about one space per 1,000 square feet."
Sometimes, then, this means demolishing part of a perfectly good building simply to gain parking space. "On one project," Pinckert said, "we sort of partitioned the building down the middle, used half of that space for parking and then double-decked the other half with office space to offset it."
It's this parking space bugaboo that lights up a developer's eyes whenever there is an outlying industrial site laying fallow and where upgrading the usage of it is feasible.
"We had this project for Cabot, Cabot & Forbes in Orange County," Pinckert said. "It had formerly been a food processing facility--a long time before--for a pizza company. There was a 160,000-square-foot industrial building on a very large site, about 20 acres, that had never been used for anything but truck storage.
CC&F bought it, and we began a study of how to use the land more effectively. We turned it into an office building, putting in a whole new second floor and doubling the space to 230,000 square feet. And we didn't have to worry about the parking situation at all. It was a classic case of under-utilization."
Obviously, the character of a site--its environment--can be the final determinant of feasibility but, sometimes, in ironic ways.