Published  Sep 22, 2017
Sep 22, 2017

By: Carley Milligan

If you're tuned into the city's downtown office buildings, you may have noticed that several of them are getting a bit of a makeover.

Lobby renovations are commercial real estate's version of "Keeping Up with the Joneses," said MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services' Terri Harrington.

The senior vice president explained that as new, class A office buildings pop up along Baltimore's skyline, the landlords of existing towers and those without waterfront views, are looking for ways to compete. And sometimes a lobby redo can be just the thing needed to attract that new tenant, maintain an existing one, increase rental rates, or prep the building for sale.

Typically, lobby renovations are not major structural changes, said Lou Ghitman, principal at local architecture firm, Design Collective Inc.

"Really you are limited to surface materials," he said.

New furniture and artwork are easy to switch up, while something like replacing flooring or painting walls can have even more of an impact, although they require working around the daily flow of employees traveling in and out of the lobby. Updating lighting is one of the easiest and most inexpensive ways to make a big change, Ghitman said, because the way a room is lit is how an individual experiences that space.

Part of the challenge of renovating a lobby is incorporating the multiple purposes the space must serve, he said. It must not only welcome visitors, but also control traffic, keep the building secure and sometimes offer comfortable and flexible work space with additional amenities like a cafe.

Design Collective is responsible for the 1 N. Charles St. lobby redesign that is currently underway. Ghitman designed a new front desk for the space, which also received new flooring earlier this week.

Ghitman said his firm was approached well over a year ago to create a redesign plan, but it was put on hold until recently when he was informed that the building owners had decided to proceed with the changes. He was unsure of whether the plan that Design Collective submitted would be followed in its entirety, but he hopes that it is.

The 25-story building went on the market back in February. It's possible the lobby redesign is part of a strategy to lure in a buyer. True North Management purchased 1 N. Charles St. in 2012 and completed other renovations to the building earlier this year.

The list of buildings to recently undergo a renovation is lengthy, from 1 N. Charles St. to 100 Light St., both 25 and 36 S. Charles St., the Candler Building, 300 E. Lombard St. and the Bank of America Building at 10 Light St., among others.

At 1 E. Pratt St., the building has gone from 40 percent leased seven or eight years ago, to almost 90 percent leased today, said Graham Savage, a director at Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate company. Bringing in PNC as a tenant, modernizing the elevators, updating the lobby and outdoor plaza and bringing in retail tenants like an Italian coffee shop, have helped bring more life to the 10-story building.

Savage said almost every building owner in Baltimore is somewhere in the lengthy renovation process, which tends to be cyclical. Just as a lobby is redone, an elevator needs updating, then a new fitness center is added, and before you know it, it's time to update the lobby again.

That's why it's important to create a design that can stand the test of time, said Bryce Turner, CEO of BCT Architects. The downtown firm is currently renovating a number of lobbies in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, including 100 S. Charles St. where Turner said they are going for a very clean and modern look where, "it doesn't feel like your father's office building."

Turner said the firm uses glass and large windows to create a "timeless" feel, and that light colors or "50 shades of beige," make an ideal backdrop for colorful furniture, landscaping and accents.

A trend Turner is seeing among many of the office building's new lobbies is the impact of technology on design. For example, elevators that are programmed to tell you which car to get into after you plug in your floor. They help to save energy and allow buildings to include fewer elevator than typically required.
Lobby renovation is a long-term and necessary strategy for building owners, Savage said. The only questions that remain are when to do it and how much to spend on it.

Savage's advice?

"Cast as wide a net as possible and invest for the long term," he said. "In 10 to 15 years it will still feel fresh and tenants will still be attracted to it."


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