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    Charlotte Business Journal: Architects, contractors and many more industries are seeing impact from Charlotte's building boom

    August 12, 2016

    By: Laura Williams-Tracy

    It’s a new take on the elevator pitch.

    Riding the elevator of the Hearst Tower where global architecture firm Gensler & Associates has its Charlotte office, managing director John Gaulden recently had an impromptu conversation with a client.

    “The client said they love how we were able to help them just one floor up,” says Gaulden. “Certainly in Center City we bump into clients all the time.”

    A building boom in uptown that rivals the renaissance of the city’s inner core a decade ago has architects like Gaulden, along with engineers and contractors, keeping their staffs busy with work right in their backyards. Projects planned for uptown over the next three and a half years total almost 4 million square feet of office space, 1,400 new residential units, 2,700 new hotel rooms and almost 630,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. It’s a bounty of work.

    Balfour Beatty Construction is building the 25-story office tower for Spectrum Properties called 300 South Tryon, opening in early 2017. The office tower includes a 217-room hotel on the Church Street side. Such work is highly visible, but there’s even more work behind the scenes.
    “Cranes are easy to see, but there’s construction uptown that you can’t see because it’s all behind glass,” says Pat Dean, vice president and business unit leader for the Carolinas for Balfour Beatty.
    When a new office tower opens and a tenant moves in, that movement may leave space empty that needs updating for a new tenant. And as new office spaces push toward designs that progressive businesses say give them a leg up in a competitive market, building owners make moves to address the look and functionality of their properties. Such “repositioning” work amounts to nearly $40 million to $70 million a year and between 30 and 50 projects, Dean says.
    “The uptown market really follows the economy and how businesses are moving around,” Dean says.
    Upfits have always been a big part of Gensler’s work, Gaulden says, but in the past 18 months the firm is working more in existing buildings. “Those are buildings with a great location but they need to up their game,” Gaulden says. “You are going to see more of that with the new buildings coming. Work itself is changing and how we use space is changing. Landlords don’t want to be left behind and are trying to stay competitive.”
    Uptown architecture firm ai Design Group is working on the renovation of what was the AT&T Plaza building on Brevard Street. The building, which served as a call center for AT&T for many years, was purchased by Stream Realty Partners and is being repositioned to attract new tenants to its location near the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
    “We’re essentially redoing that whole block of Brevard,” says Wes Jones, principal of ai Design Group. “We’re building a new connected two-story glass box lobby that will become the new front door on Brevard Street with retail and restaurant capability on Brevard.”
    On the north side, there’ll be a canopy entrance for those arriving by train. Inside the eight-story building, floors will be more open with greater leasable space.
    Along with the AT&T building work, ai Design Group is upfitting the headquarters for Babson Capital in the new 300 South Tryon tower under construction by Spectrum and Balfour Beatty. At 525 North Tryon, formerly known as the Odell Building, owner Grubb Properties has brought in ai Design to create a new fitness center and ground-level gathering spaces. “It’s a fun time and this boom is the busiest we’ve ever been in uptown,” Jones says. “To us, this has been just as strong as it was pre-recession.”
    Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, the region’s largest design firm, has long had strong ties to Charlotte’s financial-services firms, keeping busy with uptown office moves. But today more than 50% of the firm’s work is uptown with banks as well as law firms and other office tenants. Little completed the remake of Charlotte Center City Partners' office space, working to bring urban vitality to the 16th floor of the 200 South Tryon tower.
    “A lot of our work is a reflection of the city and how it grows,” says Jim Thompson, director of design for Little Diversified Architectural Consulting. “Companies like being connected to something larger than themselves in uptown.”
    Axiom Architecture, which designed many of uptown’s condo developments a decade ago, is busy with apartment design, including the 302-unit building at the Actor’s Theatre site for Proffitt Dixon, which includes 11,000 square feet of retail, and a townhouse-style project for Camden Properties behind its Grandview building.
    “Our firm has always done a lot of work in Charlotte,” says Steve Barton, a principal at Axiom. “Coming out of the recession, we were doing stuff in Columbia and Raleigh and Charleston. We’ve gotten to the point that almost everything has been about Charlotte for the last couple of years. We love doing stuff in our own city and bettering our city.”

    Demand for design and construction talent has prompted local firms to grow their staffs and seek help from affiliated offices.

    After moving to new space two years ago, ai Design Group is already expanding its workspace to make room for 20 additional hires. Its staff is 50% larger than before the recession. In July, the firm merged with Progress AE, a design firm from Grand Rapids, Mich., expanding its geographic reach and adding in-house engineering.

    Likewise, Gensler has doubled its staff in the last two years, much of it attributable to uptown work.

    Axiom dropped to its three principals in the recession, and now has a staff of 14. “Our challenge is to maintain our staff with all of the work coming in,” Barton says. “During the recession you could find architects everywhere and now you can hardly find anybody.”

    Dean of Balfour Beatty says uptown projects require more planning time because the labor market has become tight. “Demand for project managers and superintendents is high. Our people really do love working uptown with the challenges of the logistics and site constraints.”

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