When Bruce Lamo and his wife moved from their four-bedroom house in Edina to a loft in downtown Minneapolis, they had an easy solution to their downsizing dilemma — ministorage units.
The Lamos have plenty of company. Across the Twin Cities, sprawling storage facilities are filling up, new ones are sprouting and others are expanding — a boom fueled by the habit that so many people have of acquiring more stuff than they can ever fit into their homes.
The storage business is growing despite the fact cities loathe how the sites usually look — bland, garage-like buildings that do little to boost tax rolls or generate jobs. While some cities continue to consider restrictions on them, others are welcoming the chance to make use of long vacant buildings or undeveloped land.
Brooklyn Park recently approved plans for one ministorage facility to expand and a new one to be built. Another in Blaine is under construction on the site of a long-vacant auto dealership. An abandoned building on Como Avenue in St. Paul was converted into a storage facility, and the city is considering one that would go into a warehouse next to the historic Schmidt Brewery.
Lamo has experienced ministorage both as a user and an owner. He tucked away camping gear and extra furniture at Twin Cities Self Storage, a phalanx of six buildings he operates on the south edge of Chanhassen, and later added items belonging to his mother, who is moving from her home into senior housing.
The Chanhassen Planning Commission recently approved a plan allowing Lamo to add five buildings on an adjacent piece of vacant land. He’s hoping to begin work on two by the end of this year. Unlike his current complex of metal sheds, the new buildings will have stucco and brick exteriors — a sign of increasingly stringent standards required by many communities.
“Demand has definitely picked up,” said Lamo. He believes it’s a payoff for improvements he has made since buying the 1980s-era complex four years ago, but also understands it’s part of an overall upswing. “My customers tell me other facilities are full,” he said.
Over the years, ministorage facilities have gone from temporary to long-term parking places for people’s belongings. Lamo said he has customers who were there when he bought the business four years ago. A survey by the Self Storage Association, a national trade group, found that 30 percent of ministorage renters have had their units for more than two years.
Some recent demand has come from rising numbers of people moving to apartments, but the survey found many customers live in houses with garages, basements and attics.
“We don’t have enough places to put our toys,” said Troy Bix, vice president of the trade publication Inside Self Storage. He said it’s also a business premised on emotion. “Granny had this really cool sewing machine or piano. God forbid we actually use it. But we store it because it would upset her if we got rid of it, even if she’s already six feet under.”
Monthly rent at the Chanhassen facility ranges from $65 for a 5-by-10-foot unit to $269 for a 10-by-40-foot unit that’s roughly the size of a two-car garage. People often use larger units to store vehicles and boats. Some businesses store inventory in units because they can be cheaper than renting conventional retail or commercial space.
Self-storage operators auction the contents of units if users fall far behind in rent. Many auctions are online, with bidders agreeing to buy everything in a unit. “These aren’t full of treasures,” Lamo said. He believes most people who abandon units do so because they’re leaving town under a financial cloud.
Cities sometimes steer them to land that’s difficult to develop because the parcels are oddly shaped or have poor visibility, said Paul Bilotta, a former planner for Shakopee who recently became Roseville’s community development director. Planners can be reluctant to allow ministorage on land on the fringes, fearing that if sewer lines get extended, “a great piece of property for a commercial corner has been taken for another use,” he said.
On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council is scheduled to hear a neighborhood group’s objections to a self-storage facility proposed for a former warehouse on the site of the old Schmidt Brewery, where artists’ lofts have been developed. The Planning Commission narrowly approved the plan in September, with some commissioners saying the new loft development had paved the way for higher, better uses for the property.
Burnsville is considering amending its zoning ordinance to prohibit ministorage businesses from building or expanding in retail-oriented districts. It currently has eight, mostly in industrial zones.
The city began looking at the issue this summer after a building owner near Burnsville Center asked about converting his property to a self-storage operation, said Jenni Faulkner, community development director. At a recent work session, City Council members said they favored the zoning changes to preserve sites for retail and office users.
Sometimes cities benefit if a dormant property gets a new life as a self-storage facility. Chicago-based Metro Storage LLC entered the Twin Cities market a few years ago by converting an empty Target store in Maple Grove to a self-storage operation. It is redeveloping a former Dodge auto dealership in Blaine, keeping and remodeling the vacant sales room and building a three-story addition.
“I think I would have liked to have seen something that would go back to the 100 employees who were at Blaine Dodge,” said Mayor Tom Ryan at the council meeting where the project was approved. But Ryan and council members praised the sleek look of the new building. “They’re doing a nice job on a site that had become kind of a sore spot on Highway 65,” said Bryan Schafer, planning and community development director.
A new kind of storage firm
Brooklyn Park is about to get a new self-storage business that will look and operate differently than competitors’.
Cyber Space is an offshoot of Local Motion, a Twin Cities moving company. Unlike other self-storage facilities, Cyber Space customers don’t have direct access to their units. Items are photographed before they go into crates roughly the size of large international shipping containers. Customers can see the photos online by using a secure access code. They can get things by clicking on photos and making an appointment to pick them up at the facility’s drive-up doorway.
Brooklyn Park planning commissioners approved the project in early October, thanking Cyber Space for locating in the city. The City Council unanimously approved it last week. All storage functions except for the drive-up will be in an existing commercial building. The business will have about 40 employees, more than conventional self-storage operations.
Cyber Space has one other facility in Minneapolis. Molly Seeley, who developed and heads the business, said that building is full. “We’re looking to expand locally and through franchises, nationwide,” she said.