A Discussion About Adaptive Reuse with Prism's Bob Gibson

Top Quote Selecting the Right Site and Team, and Creating Balance Between Old and New. End Quote
  • Bergen-Passaic, NJ (1888PressRelease) July 21, 2011 - Commercial real estate owner/operator Prism Capital Partners, LLC is set to break ground this summer on Phase I of The Parkway Lofts, a multifamily adaptive reuse in Bloomfield and East Orange, N.J. The project will convert a 114-year-old, 365,000-square-foot former General Electric Company warehouse property, located on the Garden State Parkway, into 361 loft-style apartments. At build out, the 14.5-acre site will be transformed into a distinctive, high-density residential village also featuring 150 for-sale townhomes, a clubhouse and other lifestyle amenities, to be built as part of Phase II.

    In the following interview, Bob Gibson, a Prism senior vice president specializing in adaptive reuse, who is overseeing the Parkway Lofts project, talks about the unique approach and considerations associated with this development niche.

    What is the single most important element of a successful adaptive reuse?
    The key to successful adaptive reuse has little to do with my role. Success hinges on selecting the right site. The best projects have a story associated with them. Parkway Lofts, for example, is an iconic building. Everyone who drives on the Garden State Parkway recognizes the building. But few have gotten off the highway and driven into the neighborhood, to understand that this is really an industrial building in the middle of a residential area benefited by immediate access to a mid-town direct train stop - the Watsessing Station in Bloomfield. This project will reinvent and transform an area that has heretofore missed the path of progress and growth, into a thriving and desirable, urban-living community. The task of a redeveloper is as much about establishing a destination as it is about bricks and mortar.

    It seems that adaptive reuse requires a different kind of vision than ground-up construction. How do you make it come together?
    The first step is to assemble a design team that will support and refine the owner's vision of the project. Face-to-face discussions at the start of the project help to ensure that everyone involved shares the developer's vision. When successful, the strengths of the existing building are identified, and the character of the original building is preserved.

    What are some of the challenges specific to adaptive reuse projects?
    While you do start with the existing structure, frequently that is all you have. Determining the unknown existing conditions and overcoming the obstacles these conditions may present is the challenge specific to adaptive reuse projects. All original building systems and structures must be inspected, documented and evaluated before any redesign can occur. In the case of Parkway Lofts, we looked into keeping some of the original windows. They are beautiful, but they are more than 100 years old. This project is being designed to LEED specifications, which requires certain standards that older windows simply do not meet.

    Energy efficiency is a hot topic. What does it take to bring an old, drafty building up to modern standards?
    When you refer to an "old drafty building," I believe you are interested in energy efficiency. We have used the LEED standards as a guide for energy-efficient design while at the same time worked to preserve the character of the building. First, we have incorporated top of the line mechanical systems. Second, we have incorporated the best technology available to improve the thermal performance of the building's exterior walls and windows. The exterior walls will be insulated using spray foam insulation that offers both excellent thermal benefits as well as acoustic advantages. The windows will be built with a thermally efficient frame and insulated glass. The windows are a high-ticket item. At Parkway Lofts, we opted to invest in keeping the windows as large as the originals because of their architectural contribution. The building has an open feeling, with lots of natural light and views of Manhattan to the east and the Watchung Mountains to the west. We expect people will be drawn by that as well as the uniqueness of the living environment. In any case, the goal is to make the building as energy efficient as possible while preserving the character of the original building.

    In an industrial-to-residential reuse, how do designers accomplish the goal to tie into the building's history while creating attractive living spaces?
    The designers have preserved two of the most attractive features of the existing structure. The high ceilings and the large windows are a feature that, due to the cost, will not be found in a new building. The ceilings, at most places, are seventeen feet high. The typical window is twelve feet high and nineteen feet wide. Various finishes -including exposed columns, beams and ceilings dressed up with some color - help to create an industrial-type feel.

    Has the economic downturn hurt or helped the market for adaptive reuse?
    Adaptive reuse, like all commercial real estate development, came to a virtual standstill during the recession. However, many companies have been moving projects through design and approval. Labor and materials pricing has come down significantly and remains favorable, which is advantageous to those of us who are set to move into the construction phase. However, even in the early stages of economic recovery, some prices have begun to creep up. If construction costs increase quickly, budgeting will become a challenge for all projects.

    Any final thoughts on specializing in adaptive reuse?
    Real estate is a business, and every project boils down to dollars and cents. However, there is an underlying satisfaction in being able to create something or, in the case of adaptive reuse, re-create something. It is incredibly gratifying, especially in a redevelopment, to see the physical transformation and know that you are helping to write the next, totally different chapter for a piece of history.

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