By Laura Williams-Tracy – Contributing Writer
Aug 20, 2020
While it’s hard to know just how much the commercial office landscape will shift post Covid-19, employers continue to grapple with the risks of returning workers to shared spaces. Common lobby areas, confining elevators, and shared air handling systems are out of vogue.
Camp North End, an adaptive reuse project just north of uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, is providing solutions for businesses with those concerns.
In June, developer ATCO Properties and Management opened nearly 140,000 square feet of office and retail in a fraction of the 76-acre site’s 1.2 million square feet of warehouses ready for conversion.
The development is primarily made up of single-story warehouses. There are no common lobby areas, no elevators and no shared restrooms among office tenants. Each space has multiple entrances and exits to the outside, opening to vast covered areas with outdoor seating, art, landscaping and a covered quarter-mile walking path. Because buildings are single-story, every space has direct rooftop access with its own HVAC system.
“Creative office space is a trend that is obviously growing in Charlotte,” says Tracy Dodson, assistant city manager for economic development for the city of Charlotte. “Now, add the new desire to socially distance and not crowd in elevators, and you have what I think is a perfect package for what office tenants will want looking forward.”
Camp North End began in 1924 as a Ford Motor Company factory producing Model T and Model A cars. It closed amid the Great Depression, and during World War II reopened as a quartermaster depot for the U.S. Army.
Over time, the Army built another 1 million square feet. After the war, the Army built missiles and munitions there as well as the Gama Goat, a semi-amphibious vehicle, through the late 1970s.
RiteAid used the property as a distribution center until 2016 when it built a new facility, and developer ATCO purchased it and began preserving the history and character of the site. In 2017, 20,000 square feet of office opened along with spaces for artists, small businesses and nonprofits, food and beverage – a microcosm of how ATCO plans to build out the rest of the property.
The most recent, office-intensive phase includes about 100,000 square feet for lease in the Gama Goat building at 1701 N. Graham Street. The space has an industrial vibe with large covered outdoor spaces with planters, tables, art and other amenities. Buildings include exposed brick and steel structures, and two buildings feature intricate timbered ceilings dating back to a time when steel was reserved for the war effort. New York firm, S9 Architecture, which specializes in adaptive reuse, designed the building renovations with BB+M Architecture working locally.
ATCO development director Tommy Mann says the project has seen an uptick in interest. “It’s coming from tenants who were considering towers and are now reconsidering that decision. We are also seeing tenants that were in coworking spaces, which also tend to be in towers, where they are in shared space and have no decision-making control over their space,” he says. “Companies are weary about going back into that situation, and those thinking about the fall or next spring are starting to look around.”
Mann said the types of companies that are attracted to Camp North End are those in the tech field and those in creative industries that recognize that office space supports or hinders the creativity that drives business.
Ally Bank opened its TM Studio in Camp North End in 2017 as a way to spark new ideas for its customer-facing products. Ally Bank was created in Charlotte in 2009 from GMAC, and it found kinship with Camp North End’s auto industry roots.
“We view ourselves as the original disruptor in digital banking,” says Emily Shallal, senior director of customer strategy. “We champion employees to disrupt and innovate.”
To do that, Ally Bank carved out a smaller space at Camp North End away from the daily constraints of Ally’s corporate headquarters uptown. A small team of employees rotates through the studio every few months, freed of the regular demands of their job to focus their creative energy on new consumer products.
“We felt an immediate connection to the creative aspect of Camp North End and how people use the space,” says Shallal.
Given Camp North End’s active environment, Ally employees at the site often escape the office to interact with people on site to spark new ideas for the business. Last year Ally launched a customer savings tool kit based on work done there.
Camp North End’s creative and person-focused environment gained it a Fitwel community certification, one of the first four developments in North America to receive such recognition from the Center for Active Design. Fitwell certification is based on over 5,600 public health research studies to create a scorecard to guide developers in creating a health community.
As businesses consider Covid-19’s disruption to their workplace, what makes a workplace healthy is under greater scrutiny. “It’s interesting how quickly a discussion can change,” says Joanna Frank, president and CEO of the Center for Active Design in New York City. “We have been making the business case for decades on why projects should prioritize the people within the project and how that is not just good for health, but good for business.”
Camp North End achieved Fitwel certification for its easy accessibility to public transportation and nearby neighborhoods and for the active amenities on site. A quarter-mile covered walkway surrounding the Gama Goat building includes local poetry dangling from placards along the route and provides the setting for an uninterrupted walking meeting. Other features include bike paths and on site showers for biking commuters, more than 50 pieces of public art, and a focus on events and programming. Tobacco-free policies and mechanical systems that limit localized pollution help enhance the ambient air quality.
“There are not very many Camp North Ends in this world,” Frank says. “It is meeting demand because it is within the infrastructure of a large city. Folks are going to gravitate to it because it is offering something people want.”
Though Camp North End doesn’t yet offer much vertical development, the one-level design belies the available space. The original Ford Factory building is equivalent to 10 floors of an uptown office tower.
“In Charlotte we have a lot of bank buildings so that’s where most companies get shuffled into,” Mann says. “We don’t have a lot of this great authentic adaptive reuse. We will attract companies that recognize that the environment their employees come to work at every day actually influences how their employees feel about their jobs.”
ATCO is a fourth-generation family company dedicated to maintaining, managing, and developing a diverse range of real estate properties. The current portfolio includes prime office and multifamily properties concentrated in and around Manhattan and investments in select central business districts across the U.S., including Austin, Charlotte, and the Triangle.