The Growing Shadow of Self Storage

self storage roadAs January comes to a close most of the presents of the holiday season have probably found a place in our homes. Shelves are a bit heavier. Closets are a bit fuller. Unclaimed space is a bit rarer. The success of the retail industry shows itself in our collective burgeoning homes and as the spring approaches there will be Americans looking to find new homes for possessions they can’t fit, but don’t want to part with. Similar to the growth of digital space in the cloud, the displacement of our excess stuff to an out-of-sight location can be perceived as utilizing an endless amount of space with little repercussion, but this strengthening trend has fueled an industry in the business of taking up space while giving little back.

Over the past three decades the self-storage industry has ballooned to include over 48,500 facilities in the U.S. generating annual revenues of over $24 billion according to the Self Storage Association. Self-storage facilities can take on two main forms. The first is a low, sprawling development often limited to one storey tall and common to the suburban development pattern where land is less expensive. The other is taller structures that stack floors of storage closets on top of each other in urban environments either through the conversion of existing warehouses or the demolition of low structures to make room for a tower of closets. Regardless of the form, self storage can be perhaps best viewed as an “amenity” that adds nothing to its surrounding environment.

In Queenborough Plaza–a hub in one of New York’s outer boroughs– three storage facilities have recently materialized within a three block radius, all of them at least 8 stories tall. While some development efforts have tried to promote life around the subway stop and its newly renovated public park with residential, office and retail locations, giant storage containers remove sites from street life contribution and make entire blocks less desirable. What began to grow into a perfect case of transit oriented development has been challenged by development that brings value to landowners at the cost of stripping it from the neighborhood.

A rendering of one of Queensborough's new self storage facilities.

A rendering of one of Queensborough’s new self storage facilities.

As a piece of program, these facilities do nothing to productively support a walkable environment. They provide no interaction with sidewalk traffic (and as a result do nothing to promote it). Like parking lots, self storage buildings stand as missing teeth of activity amidst a streetscape by using sidewalk real estate for program that one can only use by driving to it. While they may make their owners an extra buck, their presence depreciates strength of the urban realm around them. As I read through a book by urban planner Jeff Speck, his words point to these types of projects that “have matched the uninviting streetscape with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable and just plain boring.”

The Nature of the Beast

As yet another piece of evidence to the inherent sustainability of our culture, of the 59,500 self storage facilities in the world, 81.5% are located here in the U.S. of A. As of 2013 nearly 9% of the households in the country use self storage, an increase of 50% from 1995. The reason certainly isn’t because we throw less away. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as of 2012 we handily produced more municipal waste than any country in the world.

Perhaps most of the space is used by urban dwellers with those pesky small apartments? Not so. Of those who use self storage, 68% live in single family homes while 65% have a garage, 45% have an attic and 33% have a basement. There are also less short stays than one might think. Rather than the quick layover in between moves, 22% rent space with a horizon of 1-2 years with another 30% anticipating to pay for someone to store their stuff for over 2 years.

Beyond being a poor neighbor, each self storage facility is a representation of an unsustainable cultural trend built around the accumulation of stuff. In the years rolling up to the great financial recession the business model came into its prime. It took the self storage industry 25 years to build its first billion square feet of space. The second billion only took eight (1998-2005). Now we have arrived at a point where 7.3 square feet of storage exists for every man, woman and child in the United States. I admire the gusto of a quote from the Self Storage Association:

“It is physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.”  

It is hard to decide which aspect of this growing trend is most troublesome. It could be that we are somehow able to be the country that simultaneously stores the most stuff and throws the most away. Or it might be that we have devoted so many resources to storing possessions and with only 9% of the country partaking. Where will we be by 2030?

Holes in the Landscape

Proponents can be quick to point out a growing trend of self storage facilities incorporating rooftop solar arrays to help offset their electrical needs. It is true that a standard storage stop uses relatively little energy other than an office and some area lighting, but the real energy footprint is in the structures themselves and the uses they are displacing. The latent energy in construction is baked into the fabrication, shipping and erecting of materials. Given the goal of keeping costs down, the quick construction and cheap materials make it unlikely much of it is going to be eventually recycled upon demolition.

While uninspiring, the trend is not all that surprising. Our homes have inflated in size over the past three decades, filled with rooms crafted around functions we no longer use. Municipalities can and should take a more proactive approach in crafting their zoning resolutions to guide storage facilities to areas where they make the most sense.

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