Commercial projects include a variety of decision-makers, third parties, and, sometimes, regulators. One commercial project we’re working on today is bringing many influencers to the table. Even with this project’s more complex dynamics, this is the type of work our Commercial Studio team loves to be part of.
We’re excited to share this story with you — it’s part one in a series of articles about our client, RangeWater Real Estate, and their dream of a new and expansive fitness facility for their residents at Virginia Highlands Apartment Homes.
Fitness Facility Overlooking the BeltLine
Last year, RangeWater contacted us about their interests in improving the Virginia Highlands Apartment Homes complex. The new owners purchased the apartments, located in the historical Virginia Highland neighborhood near the BeltLine, with plans to rebrand and update the community.
“RangeWater knew we were in the same area of the city, just a few miles down the road, in fact, and had heard of our work with in-town properties,” says Cooper Pierce, the Commercial Team Leader and Firm Leader at Jones Pierce Studios.
As new owners, RangeWater was planning key upgrades to the apartment homes and evaluating how the amenities could be upgraded. One of the areas they knew needed reimagining was the fitness center, which was inadequate in size for the apartment complex.
Located in the heart of Atlanta, Virginia Highlands Apartment Homes feature renovated and new contemporary apartments, with proximity to Piedmont Park, direct access to the BeltLine and a short walk to Ponce City Market.
Rethinking Site Limitations
RangeWater’s initial idea was to expand the clubhouse, but the site limitations made this impractical. They identified some maintenance sheds in the back corner of the property near the BeltLine that could be reallocated for better use. This area soon became the obvious location to put the new amenity building, as it offered the ability for advertising the property and a direct connection of the amenity space to the public BeltLine trail.
Our client’s desire to provide an appropriately sized 1,500 square foot fitness center for the 300-unit community, coupled with the newly defined location, cultivated a vision for a more expansive amenity building. We discussed what the added amenity space could offer Virginia Apartment Homes’ current and future residents and how it could benefit from the location and the convenient access to the BeltLine. The vision developed into a two-story building with fitness programming on the main level and a clubroom on the upper level with outdoor space overlooking the BeltlLine.
Historic map showing the location of the trolley service barns, where the apartment complex is located today
Social Distancing Demands Reveal Opportunities
Around the time of our initial call, the pandemic’s impact was starting to take hold. This encouraged the team to focus on creating spaces where people could social-distance by incorporating open-air options and outdoor spaces. An outdoor patio and a greenspace for outdoor exercise were added to the fitness facility program, and the idea of an outdoor deck with open-air options was included in the upper-level gathering space.
We talked with RangeWater about how to bring in fresh air and explored options such as accordion-folding glass doors and roll-up, garage-style doors. The fresh air, open space for social-distancing and how the deck will expand the community’s social amenities made the new space appealing for renting out to private parties.
Deeper Site Analysis and Code Reviews
With the client’s excitement and approval of the building program, our team began the work of analyzing the site and reviewing codes to determine the size of the building, how many bathrooms were required, what the fire and emergency egress requirements were, ADA compliance, and researching historical data of the property.
Finally, we planned out what would be on its first and second floors of the fitness center with the goal of a beautiful, multi-functional space in the corner of the Virginia Highlands Apartment Homes community.
Initial site plan for RangeWater Real Estate’s apartment homes project
Tying a New Design to Atlanta’s History
RangeWater had already committed to working with an interior design firm to help with the rebranding and renovations of the apartment homes, redoing finishes, repainting walls and more, for new looks at the clubhouse and leasing office.
The design firm had initially come up with ideas for the apartments’ interior renovations that tied into the property’s history of being the site of the city’s old service barns for the trolleys adjacent to a railroad line. The old brick trolley barns, some of the last remaining structures of the city’s old streetcar system from the early 1900s, were torn down to make way for this apartment community in the late 1980s. The railroad right-of-way has now become the Atlanta BeltLine.
“Bringing the area’s rail-corridor history into the fitness facility was something we were excited to continue,” says Cooper. “We envisioned the new building’s facade meshing with the apartments’ brick and siding exteriors and the arched entryways found throughout the property.”
We did our own research on the trolley barns’ history and discovered that they served the nine-mile Circle Trolley Line that connected downtown to many of the newer neighborhoods being developed outside of the central business district at the time. Linking the fitness center design to the historical aspect of the railway and trolley line became a focal point for the building design — expressing those building types in a modern interpretation without trying to copy the barns or a train station.
Cooper Pierce, AIA, LEED AP, is the Commercial Team Leader and Firm Leader for Jones Pierce Studios’ Commercial division.
Elevated Train Station Platform, Reimagined
Jones Pierce developed three to four concepts in 3-D models for the RangeWater team. The winning scheme was one that integrated a steel-truss bridge connecting the upper roof deck to the BeltLine. The bridge and upper deck with its covered area resembled a modern, elevated train station platform. With this design, we could create a new look for the apartment complex and provide direct access to one of Atlanta’s hottest amenities.
We also focused on creating designated greenspace areas within the required Beltline buffer zone adjacent to the building that provided extra usable outdoor space that fit the requirements of the Beltline Ordinance.
For the design concept, we wanted to have large operable glass openings to connect the indoor and outdoor spaces. These spaces combined with the upper-level deck and bridge connection would come together to form a sense of public space for the community.
Images of three initial concepts presented to RangeWater Real Estate
Utility Easement Obstacle Requires Revised Design
As part of our due diligence process, we reached out to the Atlanta Beltline staff for a preliminary review of what we were proposing. We learned that the new fitness center’s connection to the BeltLine — the proposed steel-trussed footbridge — meant we would be crossing over Georgia Power’s utility easement. Although the BeltLine review committee was excited about the design, it would have to be approved by Georgia Power — and another presentation was scheduled for the utility’s review.
While the presence of overhead, high-powered electrical lines 40+ feet in the air did not seem that much of a problem, the policies in place would not allow any structure to be built within their easement.
We were disappointed that the bridge had to be removed from the design since it was the iconic element for that concept. The building also had to be pushed back to accommodate the easement requirements. The RangeWater team decided to reassess the other concepts presented and settled on one that incorporated a water tower over the exterior egress stair from the upper deck to be the new icon.
We worked with the water tower concept, and after some iterations in the weeks that followed, were able to integrate part of the steel bridge structure as a nod to the original design. The structure that extended onto the upper-level deck turned into a trellis sun-shading element for the porch.
Concept of Virginia Highlands Apartment Homes’ BeltLine-facing fitness facility
What’s Up Next in Our BeltLine-Area Project
Not quite one year later, we continue our discussions with RangeWater about Virginia Highlands Apartment Homes’ fitness facility. We wouldn’t have thought last year that the pandemic would still be with us, and we’re happy to know that RangeWater continues to be excited about its partnership with Jones Pierce Studios.
We look forward to bringing you part two of this story, where we head into the formal design review commission work.
For more information about our Commercial Studios work, view our design portfolio, or contact us with any questions or your interest in a commercial project.
*(1911) Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia. Sanborn Map Company; Vol. 2. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.