New life for an old spot

Ex­ist­ing com­mer­cial prop­er­ties get fresh use

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JOHN WHAR­TON jwhar­ton@somd­news.com

An en­tre­pre­neur­ial vi- sion may in­clude imag- in­ing a grand struc­ture built from scratch on open land, but imag­ina- tion and en­gi­neer­ing can give an un­used or un- derused ex­ist­ing build­ing a whole new life.

In South­ern Mary­land, for in­stance, a for­mer floor­ing busi­ness and ad­join­ing fur­ni­ture show- room have been trans- formed into a high-en- ergy fam­ily cel­e­bra­tion venue, where a cav­ern- ous ceil­ing area pro­vided just the right di­men­sions. An old de­part­ment store be­came the home of a pop­u­lar gym­na­sium, with room for more busi­nesses to also make use of the over­hauled in­te­rior. And a land­mark restau­rant site that was built as a house al­most a cen­tury

ago has a new pro­pri­etor, who has drawn the clien­tele from his for­mer loca- tion to a place that not only has a long his­tory, but more room.

On a broader level, a county re­de­vel­op­ment man­ager looks at the po­ten­tial in­creased de­mand for ar­eas where old build- ings sit on land owned by pa­tient in­vestors. When the time is right, those prop­er­ties could pro­vide de­sired homes and shops — and new jobs — with- out lay­ing more pave­ment over un­de­vel­oped open land.

Paul Facchina Jr. was so taken by his ex­pe­ri­ence vis­it­ing a Sky Zone tram- po­line park else­where in Mary­land that he quickly be­gan look­ing for a site to build and start his own when he got home to Charles County, fast-track- ing the idea into a re­al­ity, and open­ing its doors in Septem­ber of this year.

“Most peo­ple take three years,” Facchina said. “I did it in one.”

But the site’s his­tory ac­tu­ally dates back to the 1980s, when a Floor- ing Amer­ica shop and a fur­ni­ture busi­ness were built along U.S. 301 in the White Plains area.

“It was two dif­fer­ent build­ings that were ad-

joined by a com­mon vesti- bule, ... the en­try point to both build­ings,” Facchina said. “A cou­ple dif­fer­ent peo­ple had no­ticed it, and I had driven by.”

The fur­ni­ture store al- ready had closed, and Facchina took part in ex- pedit­ing the floor­ing busi- ness’ on­go­ing search for a new lo­ca­tion. He went out to Los An­ge­les to pro­cure his Sky Zone fran­chise agree­ment, ac­quired a 10year lease on the prop­erty, and con­tin­ued on with “a very big sub­stan­tial in- vest­ment” of his per­sonal cap­i­tal and a bank loan, to cre­ate a busi­ness where peo­ple can get a fun work- out any day, and have a party on a spe­cial one.

“We needed the ceil­ing height” of the floor­ing busi­ness’ stor­age area and up­stairs of­fices, for uses in­clud­ing a Sky Zone War­rior Course, Facchina said on a re­cent af­ter­noon while walk­ing, and climb­ing, through the 18,000 square-foot area.

“We max­i­mized the spa­tial en­gi­neer­ing. The goal was to uti­lize ev­ery square foot,” he said, first by re­mov­ing the ex­ist­ing in­te­rior. “I de­mol­ished all of that,” he said, while pre- serv­ing the weight-bear- ing col­umns, and “with­out do­ing any struc­tural modi- fi­ca­tions at all” to that area, or the ad­join­ing furni- ture show­room’s shorter 10,000-square-foot lay­out. That por­tion proved to be well suited for Facchina’s own of­fices, a cus­tomer check-in area and the four party rooms.

The one piece of the puz­zle that did re­quire some struc­tural change was the old en­trance area, to make it a wel­com­ing gath­er­ing place for the vis­i­tors who aren’t there to bounce off the walls or fly through the air.

“We turned the vestibule into the par­ents’ lounge, be­cause of the win­dows, [and] it had a cafe-like feel,” Facchina said. “We put in the TVs so the fa­thers could watch sports, and we have free Wi-Fi as well.”

Re-ten­ant, re­use or re­de­velop

Across the high­way, Charles County has a suite for its de­part­ment of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing the of­fice of Tay­lor Yewell, whose new stream­lined ti­tle as the county’s re­de­vel­op­ment man­ager fits in well with his fo­cus on a fu­ture of mak­ing bet­ter use of ex­ist­ing com­mer­cial ar­eas. He re­cently dis­cussed the plans for a strip of Old Route 5 in Wal­dorf, one that runs be­tween Old Wash­ing­ton Road and U.S. 301, and is lined with struc­tures dat­ing back to the late 1960s.

“There’s a lot of un­der-uti­lized space there,” Yewell said.

He de­tailed three dis­tinct ap­proaches to mak­ing new uses of old sites, in­clud­ing prop­er­ties that can be “re-ten­anted,” such as the Sky Zone fran­chisee’s ap­proach of us­ing a build­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent than its orig­i­nal pur­pose. “Adap­tive re­use” goes fur­ther, such as turn­ing ware­houses into con­do­mini­ums or of­fices, Yewell said, while full “re­de­vel­op­ment” in­volves tear­ing down va­cant build- ings, but mak­ing use of the ex­ist­ing paved sur­faces and util­i­ties.

“Here’s a built en­v­i­ron- ment that you can go into and im­prove,” he said, in- clud­ing pur­su­ing a mix of dif­fer­ent uses un­der one roof.

An ex­pan­sion of com- muter light-rail ser­vice from Branch Av­enue in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., down to White Plains has long been dis­cussed, with no con­struc­tion yet, but ideas for the area where it would roll through Wal­dorf in- clude a public civic cen­ter and ho­tel, sur­rounded by new com­mer­cial build­ings with con­do­mini­ums above them.

“You chan­nel the de- mand for the green fields, ... and shift it into ar­eas that al­ready have the builtin in­fra­struc­ture,” Yewell said. “That’s the essence of smart growth.”

The ac­tual prop­erty own­ers, await­ing a clear sign of a de­mand for their hold­ings be­fore sell­ing them to a devel­oper, are en­cour­aged to make their move, he said, through lo­cal gov­ern­ment’s re­ports on the land’s po­ten­tial, as- sis­tance with grants and pro­pos­als of public-sec­tor fund­ing.

“They’re wait­ing for [com­muter] tran­sit. They’re in it for the long game,” Yewell said. “It’s up to us to reach out to the prop­erty own­ers. It needs a bit of a nudge, ... [in­clud- ing] a sig­nal to the in­vestors that there’s a com­mit- ment from the county.”

Putting lit­tle places in a big space takes a lot of work

An un­der­used build­ing can fare bet­ter once it’s di­vided into a num­ber of smaller busi­nesses, but they each re­quire their own util­i­ties and other hard­ware, Dave Fe­gan said at his real-es­tate of­fice in the Prince Fred- erick Shop­ping Cen­ter. He un­der­took trans­form- ing a for­mer gro­cery in the shop­ping cen­ter into a restau­rant and chari- ty-based used cloth­ing store, but a big­ger feat may have been turn­ing the old Ames store in an- other shop­ping cen­ter into a World Gym, with other suites on both sides of its in­te­rior hall­way.

“Each one has to be in- de­pen­dent of the other,” Fe­gan said, in­clud­ing its own elec­tri­cal ser­vice, wa- ter and sewage, and heat- ing-and-air sys­tems.

But divi­sion has its re­wards, he added. “Small spa­ces rent for more per square foot than larger spa­ces,” he said. “We’ve made some money over the years by cut­ting up that space, and get­ting the cur­rent ten­ants.”

The Ames store had five years left on its lease when Fe­gan ac­quired con­trol of the prop­erty un­til 2025, giv­ing him the op­por­tuni- ty to in­vest in ma­jor chang- es, from the ground up.

“We jack­ham­mered up the con­crete floor,” he said, to in­stall a “Christ- mas tree” lay­out of util­ity lines in the 43,000 square­foot build­ing. “We built out the build­ing to what it is to­day,” he said. “This is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of con- vert­ing a build­ing to a dif- fer­ent use.”

Sup­ply and de­mand worked out well for the prop­erty, in the long run.

“Peo­ple were look­ing to put a gym in Prince Fred­er­ick. We had a lot of space, and they needed a lot of space,” Fe­gan said, but there was a wait­ing pe­riod for both sides to find each other. “We just had a va­cant build­ing sit­ting here,” he said, “for two or three years.”

He had the faith to pro­ceed with mak­ing the re­main­ing space avail­able for other ten­ants.

“We did it know­ing these other spots would fill in,” he said. “We an­tic­i­pated [the] oth­ers would fol­low.”

Cus­tomers will fol­low good food

Built as a home in the 1920s by St. Mary’s Fen- wick fam­ily, the build­ing known as The Wil­lows out­side of Leonard­town be­came a com­mer­cial pub be­fore World War II, and has has hosted a se­ries of restau­rant pro­pri­etors.

Kevin Thomp­son said last week that most of those busi­nesses did well enough for long enough, and that he fol­lows a prac- tice of fo­cus­ing in­vest­ment on the ba­sics. Af­ter work- ing 27 years at his father’s busi­ness in Me­chan­icsville, which evolved from a fish market to a car­ry­out ser­vice, Thomp­son started his own restau­rant on a side street off Leonard­town’s square in 2008, ini­tially lim­ited to serv­ing lunch on week­days.

“It grew so quick,” he said, to a lunch-and-din­ner restau­rant, one that even­tu­ally left cus­tomers driv­ing around to find a park­ing space and wait­ing for a ta­ble.

“I brought that back al­ley back to life,” Thomp­son said, but he out­grew that lo­ca­tion and bought The Wil­lows build­ing in Septem­ber from Danny Fitzger­ald, who up­graded the util­i­ties, roof, floor­ing and in­te­rior walls.

“I’m the in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tor,” Thomp­son said. “I’m the one who made it the way it looks, ... all the things that make it unique, that make it look like a fish market. I got rid of all the dark­ness [of the wood-pan­eled walls], and put in plenty of light, ... to brighten the place up.”

Those im­prove­ments also in­cluded pic­tures and out­door signs, he said, but his main fo­cus was on the food and ser­vice that quickly brought his clien­tele along, to a venue that gen­er­ally has been a suc­cess­ful one through many decades.

“Three [restau­rants] were here for 75 years and did ex­tremely big busi­ness,” Thomp­son said, un­like a more re­cent oper­a­tion at the site that had a far shorter run, af­ter pur­chas­ing a $7,000 sign and new equip­ment, dishes, sil­ver­ware and cases of wine glasses.

“When you’re in busi­ness, you don’t spend money fool­ishly. You spend it smart,” he said, “un­til you get up and go­ing. You’ve got to crawl be­fore you can walk.”

Mov­ing into an older build­ing has given Thomp­son the chance to hear a lot of sto­ries about his new habi­tat — in­clud­ing tales about ghostly vis­its. “I’ve heard sto­ries about it,” he said, “but I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced it.”

More of the com­ments are from vis­i­tors who are happy to see a fresh start com­ing to a fa­mil­iar place. “They get teary-eyed be­cause they’re so ex­cited,” Thomp­son said. “His­tory means a lot to them.”

STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN WHAR­TON

Tay­lor Yewell, Charles County’s re­de­vel­op­ment man­ager, tracks a broad range in changes to com­mer­cial ar­eas.

STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN WHAR­TON

Paul Facchina Jr. com­bined two stores to cre­ate his in­door tram­po­line park in Charles County.

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