Adaptive Reuse: Sustainable Development Event Recap

Adaptive Reuse

NAIOP Washington State’s Sustainable Development Committee elected to undertake a hot topic for 2023: Adaptive Reuse. The buzz is everywhere, so how do we synthesize that broad topic into bite size chunks? On April 6, 78 attendees took on that task with great energy.

Committee member, Matt Elley (AMLI Residential), introduced the panel and welcomed the guests to the event hosted by MG2. Moderator Dayna Dealy (VP Development, Skanska), led the panel made up of Kimberly Frank (Principal, GGLO), Grant Howard (Director of Construction, Unico Properties), and Andy Whitmyre (Senior Account Executive, McKinstry). Click here to view the event slides. 

To kick off the discussion, Kimberly presented the attributes of a building that lends itself to adaptive reuse. She highlighted the Cobb Building, the Alloy, and the Monte Cristo (a hotel conversion from 1994) as examples of successful conversions. She stressed the importance of having a narrow floor plate allowing for more windows and explained that many large floor plates have too much unusable square footage when laying out residential units. Choosing the right building is critical, and many of the prospective projects that GGLO has studied lacked an efficient apartment layout.

The first breakout session focused on identifying some of the key concerns of adaptive reuse. One of the biggest takeaways was understanding a jurisdiction’s desire for these types of projects and the ease of getting city buy-in. It was noted that Tacoma is eager for these types of projects, because the city has suffered with an empty downtown since the Tacoma Mall opened in 1965 and the economic down turns of the ‘70s and ‘80s. As a result, Tacoma is doing what they can to encourage good development, making the development and construction process easier to navigate and more accessible to help revitalize downtown.

Grant highlighted the 18-story Washington Tower in Tacoma originally built as an office building in 1925. It was constructed as the home to the Scandinavian American Bank and the second tallest building in Washington after the Smith Tower. It has been successfully converted into a 156-unit apartment complex with approximately 12,000 SF of commercial space on the ground level. Many contributing factors had to all fall into place to make this successful:

  • The building had been under-performing as office for some time and had no active leases at the start of construction.
  • Federal Tax Credits offsetting some of the conversion cost of and façade restoration.
  • Unico sought and won landmark status for the building.
  • Broadened the horizon of funding with qualified Opportunity Zone Funds.
  • The City of Tacoma was committed to helping the project succeed by providing the following:
    • Plan reviewers and site inspectors were regularly available to the development and construction team.
    • Plan reviewers and site inspectors were in the same room (with the development and construction team) when decisions were being made, creating continuity from office to field.
    • Zoning enforcement encouraged the development of the project from office to housing.
    • A small footprint with lots of windows in two separate narrow towers.
    • Joint venture between Unico and Pinnacle Partners.
    • The building was able to leverage existing parking to remove that capital cost from the hard cost budget.

Andy emphasized the need to bring on a team of architects, engineers, and mechanical and electrical professionals early. He shared that he looks at many projects that do not pencil because of the HVAC upgrades that are required making the switch from office to residential, stressing again that it has to be the right building, the right project. Some considerations included:

  • Converting HVAC from gas to electric.
  • Structural work to support new equipment.
  • Façade penetrations for ventilation
  • Floor-to-floor heights to accommodate mechanical systems.

Other takeaways from the panel discussion and break-out sessions included:

  • Operable windows are important.
  • Egress pathways need to be reconfigured.
  • Shorter buildings are more advantageous. If additional stairwells for egress must be added, the cost is far less than for a high rise.
  • Water, power, sewer infrastructure upgrades the services are already nearby.
  • Having adequate existing parking was important.
  • The size of the elevator(s) may need to be changed.

Overall, the panel discussion prompted lively conversations and collaboration from all event attendees. The Sustainable Development Committee plans to continue this conversation throughout the year in hopes of promoting one of the most sustainable efforts available to us: adaptive reuse.

This blog was written by Heather Bunn (Rafn Company) as part of the Sustainable Development Committee’s ongoing Sustainability Mindset series. For more information on the Sustainable Development Committee, please email [email protected].


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