Banking has long been the stock in trade of Charlotte, N.C. Two of the country's largest banks are headquartered there, not to mention a Federal Reserve branch and more than 218 branches of 20 other banks. When one of those branches pulled out of a multi-tenant office building on Tryon Street, the building's owners realized the 35-year-old edifice had lost its Class A status in the market.
But in the spring of 2005, with talk of building a baseball stadium in the near future, downtown was booming, and the Tryon Street location couldn't be beat. The powers that be decided to put their money on the residential boom and convert the outdated 13-story office building into 107 high-end condos.
“The floor plans worked out from a residential standpoint,” says Steve McClure, vice president of Charlotte-based Spectrum Properties Residential, the project's developer. “We felt that it would be more valuable as a residential condo than as an office building.”
Throughout Charlotte's history, the best addresses have been on Tryon Street. From the onset, the project team knew they had a great location—and one that was visible to everyone in the city's downtown. “We went for more of a classic look,” says McClure. “There were a lot of modern buildings going up, and we wanted to attract buyers who liked the more classic New York Fifth Avenue kind of look—one that would stand the test of time.”
Although the 195,000-square-foot building would have to be gutted, working from an existing foundation did save time. The structure's existing floor-to-floor height was an advantage, too, allowing room for true 10-foot ceilings in the living areas of all units.
Inside, the space was divided into 107 units—a mix of studios, one- and two-bedrooms, and custom units on the top two floors—that sold for between $175,000 and approximately $2 million. (All but one had been sold by January 2007.) Individual units are outfitted with granite countertops, straight, basic condominium feel to it,” says Steven Hurr, an architect with Charlotte's LS3P Associates and the project manager. “Common areas and corridors all have a very nice, upscale feel to them.”
A good amenities package was another goal. “Amenities are a key selling point,” says McClure. Residents have access to a high-end fitness center on the first floor and a club room on the second that includes a cyber café with wireless Internet and two laptops, a media room with a widescreen TV, a billiards table, and a bar area. There's even Starbucks coffee service in the morning. Units were also deeded with their own spot in the adjacent seven-level parking deck, which, luckily, was owned by the building's owner before the renovation.
Achieving all this did have its complications. “The project included just about every aspect of construction that you would normally see on a new ‘out of the ground' project, with the added twist of a complete exterior skin and interior finish, demolition, and full-scale asbestos remediation,” says Jeffery T. Duerr, project manager for Charlotte-based contractor R.J. Griffin & Co. “The building was essentially stripped down to the existing structural steel skeleton and rebuilt, including 100 percent-new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.” The pre-cast concrete façade had to be craned off, and the core of the building, which had been a bank lobby, had to be changed, even to the point of refitting the elevator cabs.
Asbestos removal added another dimension to the project. “Everyone involved in the project knew about the potential asbestos problem, and we had agreed with the owner in advance [that] the owner would be responsible for removing the material,” says Duerr. “The problem is that in the older building, the exact scale and amount of asbestos used could not be determined in advance, and workers discovered it in unexpected places as they started stripping walls and old carpets. Construction had to stop in these areas while the owner arranged for special asbestos removal crews to clean up the sites.” Despite the stop-start delays, the project still finished very close to schedule, with move-ins made possible by November 2006.
Perhaps the most unusual challenge of this project was working around two businesses that maintained their leases in the building, one for part of the renovation and the other for the entire duration. (The latter business, a telecommunications company, is coexisting with the new condo owners.)
But everyone involved agrees that the outcome was well worth the effort. “There's quite a bit happening in the downtown area that makes it desirable to live there,” says Hurr. “That's fueling the condominium boom. We have a 36-story condo building going up and more under way. It's become a real magnet for this type of project.” This specific project was one of the first in the boom, and the result, he says, is impressive. “It's taking a project that was headed in one direction and turning it around completely to take advantage of what was there.”
- Stay flexible. “I'd recommend whenever you're doing a renovation, just plan for problems,” says McClure. “Have as many contingency plans as you can. Then you have to just jump in and go for it.”
- Limit customizations. Allowing owners to customize their units is a great service, but keep in mind that it does add another layer of complexity to the project, says Hurr. “It was one project, but 107 owners, so to speak,” he says. If you're going to do this, make sure to allow time for it.
- Be prepared. Most of this project's complications came from a construction standpoint. “Expect the unexpected, and keep a good line of communication open with the owner and especially the architect,” says Duerr, “because in dealing with an old structure, issues will come up almost daily that no one could have anticipated.”