New life for an old spot
Existing commercial properties get fresh use
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.”
Taylor Yewell, Charles County’s redevelopment manager, tracks a broad range in changes to commercial areas.
Paul Facchina Jr. combined two stores to create his indoor trampoline park in Charles County.