Development and construction horror stories often make the news. But projects that work well? Not so much. Projects in which all the participants go out of their way to emphasize the high level of cooperation and support among the various players? Almost never. But Notch 8 is one of those.
Notch 8 at Potomac Yard is a 253-unit multifamily community with ground-floor retail in Alexandria, Va., a close-in suburb of Washington, D.C. The name is a nod to the location’s history: The site had been occupied by the Potomac Rail Yard — at one time the busiest rail switching yard on the Eastern seaboard-and “Notch 8” is a railroad term for a locomotive’s “full-throttle” setting.
Construction began in 2015, one of several multifamily and other residential developments in Potomac Yard during the early days of the post-recession recovery. The site includes not only apartments, but also 69,900 square feet of ground-level retail, anchored by a Giant Food grocery store, a Starbucks and a PNC bank.
After the first landowner and the entitlement architects, SK&I, had done the early site plan work, the property was sold. JBG developers entered the picture, and the team was reconfigured to include Torti Gallas architects and planners, who generated the final design. CBG Building Company, leaders in podium mixed-use construction in the Washington, D.C., metro area, then signed on, as did branding experts HZDG, which worked closely with JBG’s marketing staff.
The team members quickly came together in a way that Torti Gallas’ Brian O’Looney, the partner in charge of the project, described as unprecedented in his experience. “I’d never before seen such a collaborative approach to a project,” he said. “When a project goes well, the other people on the team not only understand your point of view, but also defend it. Everyone on this project had a level of comfort with each other that came from knowing what mattered to each other.”
That level of personal investment by members of the team resulted in the project being entered in the NAHB Multifamily Pillars of the Industry Awards three times — once by the architects, once by the builders and once by the developers. Each entry was a finalist in its own category, and each entrant looked at the project through a different lens.
The 1.87-acre site was a large rectangle with a slight inward curve on the north side. Because the building would cover the entire site, it was important to visually break it into smaller pieces by giving each of the four exterior walls — and even parts of some walls — a distinctive façade treatment related to its primary use. “But we were careful not to create too many different identities,” O’Looney said.
The north and west sides feature the grocery store, with entrances on the north, and big storefront windows for daylight on the west. The residential entrance and lobby is on the east side, facing a small park and other nearby residential areas, and has a recognizably residential exterior. The south side, which faces a busy fire station, includes bays for delivery and trash trucks and has a more industrial look. The community is at an intersection of two major roads and is served by Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) every six minutes during rush hour to deliver residents to the nearest Metro station, until a new station, just a few blocks away, opens in 2020.
The grocery store, residential entrance, and common areas take up much of the ground floor, with five levels of apartments sitting on top, encircling an interior courtyard. The common area’s resident lounge connects to the courtyard thorough a double-sided bar. In addition to the courtyard’s pool, there’s a fireplace, grilling stations, seating areas, hammocks, outdoor billiards and an outdoor flat-screen TV.
“Each of the four or five main courtyard spaces has a purpose,” O’Looney said. A person might find a quiet corner to read or relax while other residents socialize, swim or cook dinner. Because the pool closes at summer’s end, the architects used a gate system to keep some of the pool’s forecourt space available for three-season use, by closing off as little of the surrounding pool area as possible. The exterior finishes of the apartments surrounding the courtyard are more contemporary and colorful than the more traditional street-side exteriors.
The city of Alexandria had some design input, specifying that 5 percent of the units would need to be affordable. The city also required that the building, which was sited at the entry to an area known as The Exchange, had to include a feature that would distinguish that area from other neighborhoods. The architects topped Notch 8 with a structure resembling a railway water tower, labeled it “The Exchange,” and added brilliant nighttime illumination.
Every big mixed-use project has thousands of moving parts, and it was CBG Vice President Tom Sedeski’s job to keep them all moving at Notch 8. Sedeski and his team value-engineered the final design, and dealt with the adjustments and tweaks during construction.
When asked about particular challenges, Tom Rosser, one of the site superintendents, explained that because there was a fire house across the street on the south side, the surrounding streets had to remain open at all times. And because other nearby communities were opening to residents, the roads to those areas also had to stay open, so that people had access to their homes. That made equipment movement and delivery of large items more difficult.
And there was a further complication. Even though EPA’s Superfund effort had cleaned up the Potomac Yard site in the 1990s, the Notch 8 site still had some diesel fuel contamination. All the contaminated dirt had to be hauled out and taken to a hazardous waste dump, but that could happen only on days with no rain.
“We lost a month to the site issues,” Sedeski said, “but we made it up during the concrete and framing work” by offering the subcontractors incentive pay.
The design called for building a mezzanine level in the ground-floor lobby, and the builders worked out a way to frame that structure within the concrete podium. The interior designers wanted actual railroad tracks to decorate some of the walls. “Those weigh 80 pounds a linear foot,” Rosser said, “but we found a way to hang them.” The builders worked closely with the interior and landscape designers, helping them find materials to produce the desired effect on the décor.
Toward the end of the project, the builder was coordinating about 15 trades at any one time on the site. Sedeski took it all in stride, adding, “Our goal is to build what the client wants, and to build it cost-effectively.” CBG managed to do that while not only solving unanticipated problems but also acting as a helpful resource to other members of the team.
The branding and marketing pros made the most of the Notch 8’s railroad past. Matthew Blocher, JBG’s senior vice president, marketing/Communications and Julie Contos, vice president, marketing/communications, worked with HZDG’s branding experts to bring as many elements of the design into the marketing materials as possible.
The brochure copy, ad copy and website language incorporated the idea of movement and speed into every message. From the tag line, “Live in the Momentum,” to phrases such as “the fast track to great living,” and “city living with all the stops pulled out,” every message suggested a busy and exciting urban experience. The community logo, N8, was drawn with diagonal spaces through each symbol, suggesting forward motion.
Because nearby apartment communities had already opened or were opening soon, the marketers knew their program had to be distinctive and memorable, and present in every format: the clean, user-friendly Notch 8 website, an online video, signage, décor, ads on BRT buses, in Metro stations, and on other local-centric websites. They credit a search engine optimization program as their main source of leads, with a boost from additional search engine marketing.
Using Facebook’s 360-degree option, the marketing team produced a virtual tour for social media visitors. Other Facebook posts included fun photos, such as one that showed a model unit decorated for Halloween, complete with a pair of skeletons napping in the bedroom. Photos by residents also became part of the mix, as did a strong list of positive features and amenities, such as ENERGY STAR® appliances, energy-efficient construction and proximity to bike trails.
The developers partnered with the anchor retailer, Giant Food, to offer special incentives. An early two-month program offered new renters a chance to win a year’s worth of groceries, followed by smaller-scale offers later in the marketing cycle. While many of the community’s residents are millennials, there is no shortage of fast-moving people of all ages in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and the marketing brought in a multigenerational mix of busy professionals. The marketing engine’s full-throttle efforts were able to dial back a notch when the community’s lease-up period came to an end in October 2016, when it stabilized at 94 percent.
Blocher and Contos echo the other team members’ praise for the “wonderful atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration” between and among every group working on the project.
“The branding influenced the interior design, and vice versa,” Blocher said. “Everyone was involved, from the investors to the architects and designers.”
Like a high-speed train, the Notch 8 project moved swiftly and smoothly, and everyone arrived at the destination — together.