Converting any building into a self-service laundry carries a variety of challenges. Taking a 100-year-old downtown storefront and turning it into a modern, customer-friendly laundry with high-end equipment, however, presents additional hurdles — both structural and governmental.
In part one of this article (Breathing Life into a Century-Old Building), the emphasis was on the planning that went into determining if this would be a good site for a laundry, and foreshadowed the challenges ahead. This final part of the article details how Automated Laundry Systems maintained the historic facade of the San Pedro, Calif., building and encountered an investor snag.
To this point, things had gone smoothly for Emelia Kerian and Automated Laundry Systems as they progressed with a project to transform a century-old building into a modern self-service laundry. The three former businesses that the laundry had displaced had been cleared, and Automated’s engineer determined the “bones” of the structure were sufficient, with the addition of four support columns, to host a modern store. Plus, the property’s landlord and Automated were able to work out a lease agreement, including funds to upgrade the building and utilities.
However, one hurdle still loomed in the distance: obtaining a conditional-use permit from the city. The same downtown San Pedro location that made the building such an attractive site for a laundry would also prove to be one of its greatest impediments when presented to the city.
“This location was particularly challenging when it came time to apply for a conditional-use permit,” Kerian says. “The reason being that it’s a highly visible downtown building, and many felt it would be better suited for a coffee shop, restaurant, or similar business.”
Dan Bowe, IPSO North American sales manager, believes that when entrepreneurs explore remodeling and turning old buildings, particularly in downtown locations, into self-service laundries, they may need to educate people about the industry.
“Definitely, there’s some image work that needs to be done,” Bowe says. “Mention a coin laundry and for many it conjures up a dark, dingy and dirty business. It’s so important to stress to government officials as well as neighbors that those laundries are a thing of the past.
“Today’s laundries, particularly within our IPSO model, emphasize bright spaces with modern, highly efficient equipment, and perhaps even additional offerings such as Wi-Fi or a snack counter.
“Photos or videos of previous laundry projects you’ve been involved with can be helpful for presentation before city leaders and residents. Even inviting them to do an on-site visit of one of your projects can assist in making them aware of how much today’s laundry differs from those of the past.”
Even in the face of opposition, Kerian was up for the challenge of presenting not only Automated’s vision for the San Pedro location, but its record of success in building laundries that enhance the neighborhoods to which they belong.
“At the public hearing, there were a lot of people against this,” she admits. “We really had to defend this type of business.”
After a lengthy period, Automated received approval for the conditional-use permit, but that wouldn’t be the end of its dealings with the City of San Pedro.
Because the downtown building dated back more than 100 years, Automated would need to balance modern upgrades with the preservation of the historic look of the structure. This meant adapting parts of the laundry.
“We had to design the equipment layout around historic elements,” Kerian recalls. “For instance, front bay windows could be replaced with more energy-efficient models, but none could be removed completely from the design. This meant we needed to be creative to ensure capacity and work space were still balanced.”
In addition, the city provided Automated with a list of approved color choices for the exterior of the building. The storefront’s recessed entryways would also need to be incorporated into the remodel to retain its historical appearance.
So what was the city’s reaction to the plans when they were presented?
“We actually received compliments from the planner,” Kerian says, adding that the drawings received immediate approval. Automated’s challenges with this 3,700-square-foot laundry, however, continued.
As work continued on the laundry, the investor who expressed interest in the San Pedro store was suddenly pursuing another business.
“We had an investor who we had worked with before and loved the location, but then he disappeared,” Kerian says. Good locations in this business don’t stay without an owner for long, however. A new investor quickly emerged and saw potential in the project.
“I think this is really a great indicator of Automated’s approach and diligence in researching locations,” Bowe says. “One of the biggest mistakes in this business is trying too hard to make the numbers work. Those who concentrate, like Automated does, on finding a couple of excellent sites, versus many ‘decent’ locations, and utilize quality materials in the construction get the best results.”
This approach translates into laundries that still look new after a few years of heavy use. It also has significant positive impact on the resale value for those investors who come to this business with the intention of flipping the laundry after a year or two.
Since opening, the Laundromat at San Pedro has lived up to how it was pitched to the city, downtown residents and business owners.
“We’re very pleased, the owner’s very pleased, and customers are very pleased,” Kerian boasts.
Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is that the spacious, modern laundry has delivered the best of two businesses. The laundry has provided a much-needed service to the area, but it also has developed as a gathering spot (similar to the coffee shop many had favored for the location) for the neighborhood.
“We’re seeing people carrying in food and laptops with their laundry baskets. The free Wi-Fi, airy spaces and overall inviting feel have really made the Laundromat of San Pedro a nice place to congregate,” Kerian says. “That’s really the type of atmosphere we want to create with all our laundries.”
Having the vision of what the laundry should be from the start is what makes all the work and challenges along the way easier to handle, Kerian adds. But how smoothly a project like this comes together also depends on utilizing experienced contractors.
“I think, given current real estate values and the availability of storefronts, there could be many opportunities to expand our business into new areas,” Bowe says. “Such large-scale remodeling projects aren’t for everyone. When they are done right, however, these stores can not only produce fabulous ROI but also jumpstart similar projects that breathe new life into suffering areas.”
To watch a video about this project, click here.