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A Green Light for Progress on Charlotte’s Northern Blue Line: Our Multi-Family Contribution

Hannah Hanlon

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With a little over 800,000 residents, Charlotte is North Carolina’s largest city, one of the biggest in the southeast and the 17th-biggest in the US. Until just recently however, the growing city suffered from a lack of connectivity between neighborhoods and a decided lack of public transportation city-wide. Fortunately, due to a forward-thinking city government and continuity throughout 20+ years of planning, the city opened its first light rail line in 2007 and hasn’t looked back.  

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The first line to come to completion – the  LYNX Blue South Line – transformed the southern half of the city. Gold and Silver lines radiating like bicycle spokes from Charlotte’s core are also in the works. And finally, the newly completed LYNX Blue North Line is poised to do the same for travelers moving between the city’s center and UNC’s Charlotte campus in the northeast corner.

Corcoran Ota is proud to have been a part of bringing the North Line’s promise to life, with construction of our first Charlotte rail line project: V&3, a 338 unit, multi-family development just stops from the UNC campus.

Formerly called “Gateway” (because of its proximity to the University’s threshold), the project recently gained a stylized moniker combining roman numerals (“V” for 5) and Arabic numbers (3), signifying the building’s position at the “8th” stop on the Northern Blue Line. (Five plus three, get it?) This transportation feature also shaped the development’s form and functional elements. “It’s a TOD; a ‘transit-oriented development’, which dictates a number of things, but most significantly how much parking we will give the development,” notes principal architect Dean Ota. “A lot of times in zoning they’ll say, ‘You shall have at least this much parking.’ In a TOD development, they say ‘You shall not have more than this much parking’ to encourage people to take the train. It’s a great thing for the city, one I wish others would take more notice of.” (We’re looking at you, Atlanta.)

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Like another COG transit-oriented property currently in construction, our multi-family project on Atlanta’s Beltline the Charlotte site also features some “tremendous topography,” this time in a couple interesting ways. First, the site slopes; which “Isn’t a huge issue with a plot of land this large,” says Ota. But more uniquely, V&3 has a public boulevard running directly through its middle, something COG architects had to consider when planning the buildings. “The boulevard was built by the property’s ownership and then dedicated to the city after the fact,” says Ota. “So, it had to be designed in conjunction with our work. In some ways, we had to lay the boulevard out, too.” The solution sets a number of both several-story and shorter residential blocks around the boulevard’s curve, allowing the street feel to vary, rising, falling and creating interest for pedestrians.

The project is in the construction phase now, rising up among other new developments rounding out the LYNX Blue Line on Charlotte’s North side. Completion is set for early 2019. “Charlotte is expecting a repeat success on this side of the rail corridor,” says Ota. “And so far, there seems to be every indication that they will do the same, just as well as they did on the South line.”

Light rail, beltline, and other pedestrian and transit-centric developments are transforming mid-to-large tier cities all over the U.S. We’ll follow the trend via our own projects over time, including this one. Stay tuned!

Multi-Family on the Atlanta Beltline Part 1: Planning for a Family Affair

Hannah Hanlon

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“The site has what we call tremendous topography,” Corcoran Ota Group Principal Dean Ota remarks, “From one end of the area to the other, there’s 50 feet in elevation change; the height of a 5-story building.”

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That challenging grade (and memorable alliteration) belongs to the Englewood Development, a residential mixed-use property in the beginning stages of site planning just south of Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood in Chosewood Park. By all accounts the property is really pretty tremendous; for one, because it sits just one block off of Atlanta’s Beltline transit corridor, one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging urban redevelopment and mobility projects in the country. 

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Englewood’s phase 1 multifamily housing will happily be The Corcoran Ota Group’s first Beltline project, the result of a competitive bid that paired architecture firms with developers to vie for different pieces of the multi-phase development. Corcoran Ota was awarded design of the multi-family component of Phase I.

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“For these kinds of projects, the pre-development time is extensive,” says Ota. Part of the reason: A need for significant community involvement – a potential roadblock that COG chooses to harness as an opportunity.

Where traditionally only the firm’s Partners might have attended neighborhood meetings regarding the development, COG has decided to make this community-informed development a communal project within the studio. “Michael (Corcoran) and I don’t just go and interact with the community,” says Ota. “We ask project managers and even interns to join the conversation as well. It’s a communal learning experience.”

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The idea stretches to the space itself as well. That difficult topography offers a few gifts to design and development. Land owner The Atlanta Housing Authority has requested a number of attributes be present on the property. Green roofs were part of the ask and have the potential to house community gardens. The steep site allows the complex to be “stepped”, creating walk-out access to rooftop terraces that would normally have required a ladder to reach. The city agency also requires strong community connection be a focus of the development. Phase 1 will include about 30,000 square feet of retail space, but even better, COG’s work will plan for a pocket park placed so the neighborhood can actually walk through the building’s footprint. “It’s our goal to be neighborhood friendly," adds Ota, “but we’re just now discussing the open access with the community. We’ll see how it all turns out.”

This is just the beginning. We’ll follow this “tremendous” project helping define housing along the southern portion of Atlanta’s Beltline regularly here, with unique behind-the-scenes peeks at a truly community-oriented project, so come back to our blog for updates as the year – and the work – progresses.

Creating a Great Site Plan

Hannah Hanlon

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What Makes a Good Site Plan? Creativity, Thought, and Humanity.

A great site plan has the ability to create magic --  function married with artistry; smart use of space that makes the most of a site’s possibility coupled with creativity that works around what’s already there.  All in all, a little bit of art, a little bit of science, and as we’ve found over the years, a good dose of a third, vital element as well: humanity.

In the past 25 years, Corcoran Ota principal Michael Corcoran has drawn hundreds of residential site plans. His key piece of advice? Balance. “You always want the plan to be a brilliant design, but that doesn’t come free. There are always trade-offs,” he says. “It should be special, but above all, it has to work.”

And a site plan that works, from our perspective at COG, is one that thoughtfully balances the harder-to-quantify needs of the people who will eventually call each project home with the bottom-line needs of the developers who wish to build it.  

Here’s how we think about it every time we put pencil to paper:

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Balancing Act #1: Aesthetics vs. Yield

Yield is a hard number to argue with. Developers need what they need to make the math on a site work, and anything outside of that range isn’t viable. It’s up to the site plan creator to solve the puzzle. Unfortunately for some however, the easiest answer is to try to cram as many residential units into the available space without much thought to how that feels to the resident. The result isn’t pretty, or comfortable.

Alternately, good site plans go beyond the basics, putting more than average thought into arrangement and orientation of structures, ingress and egress, views and flow, far beyond the minimum requirement of number of units needed. It’s an exercise in thinking like a resident and a planner at the same time, with a mandate to create not just an economically viable or functional place, but a truly lovely place that enhances life there. The best part is, its success is self-fulfilling:  “It’s fundamental to a project’s success to create a place that residents will love,” says Corcoran. “Not just a place that the developer will.”

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Balancing Act #2: Topography Vs. Livability

Topography on a site can be both a blessing and a curse: pure potential in the form of a breathtaking feature or natural flow, or a frustrating barrier that keeps buildings from being built in an orientation that seems natural. In our experience, it’s about knowing how to balance both. A site plan that gives too much weight to topography will often place buildings in ways with little continuity or common sense (and result in places people don’t really like to live). On the other hand, a site plan that doesn’t consider topography enough could be unbuildable.

The third option is better: A plan that is reverent to topography, but doesn’t rely on it solely as an input. One that leverages the best of what a location has to offer (a view, a park, the potential for a center axial road), and on the other hand, works with or around the natural landscape in a way that makes sense to a human interacting on the ground. “Whatever makes the site sing,” adds Michael.

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One last note: Don’t Forget About Parking

One final thing that we find can be easy to omit when it comes to great site planning: cars. On a residential site, even if it’s served by great public transportation, if there aren’t enough parking spaces, people simply won’t live there. Some site plans will pack in more livable space at the expense of parking (again, forgetting the human element), but in our experience that’s never a good idea. No space for cars means not enough people willing to fill the units. Think site appropriateness instead: in a suburban setting, surface parking might not look the best, but it’s functional (and cheaper). In an urban area, buildings wrapped around precast decks can be the right choice. Either way, just make sure you’re adequately addressing residents’ car-related needs.

We’ve done hundreds of site plans over the years at COG, and know that while fresh ideas are hard to come by, looking for the potential of an empty plot of land gets easier when you seek to create balance: creativity and functionality, humanity and profitability. Do that, and you’ll plan a place that’s doesn’t just work on paper, but works for people as well.

A Welcoming Home: Building the COG Office

Hannah Hanlon

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“When we found this place – the best place we’ve been in – we pulled out all the stops,” says COG Principal Michael Corcoran of the firm’s most heartfelt passion project to date, the Corcoran Ota Group offices at 5871 Glenridge Drive. “All the stops” requires context however, and if anyone is envisioning opulence, excess, or even a bit of overblown showiness in this brand-new buildout, they’d have forgotten who COG is at heart.

Here, as in every project we undertake, each detail has been run through our unique filter: for function, delight, and perhaps most importantly, a finely tuned sense of pragmatism that blends old and new, intentionally bucks trendy (and often divisive) workplace concepts, and reflects the spirit of a company dedicated to building better for the everyday person.

Looking back, none of the previous COG spaces really felt like home. The pre-real estate crash location at Lenox Square had a prestigious address but was more than the company needed. The stint sharing space with multifamily icon John Williams and company was convenient and cozy, but short-lived. COG’s first space on Glenridge – a column-filled sub-let with a great location – made for a fitting transitional space. But our new home in suite 200, just a block up the street, has given us a chance to spread out, show off the fruits of our labor, and design a place that feels just right for the way we meet clients and approach work.

Let’s take a tour.

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Just around the corner from the building’s elevators, the COG logo welcomes visitors to an exterior “landing pad” – a quiet place separating our suite from 5871 Glenridge’s passthrough lobby. Inside our doors lives the “gallery” – a roomy reception space lined with vibrant prints of favorite projects. Opposite, a glass-enclosed main conference room invites formal get-togethers and large screen-shares (as well as the feeling that one has arrived, both client and associate).

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Going deeper into the suite, light, bright cubicles dot the main area – a wide-open space intentionally designed to offer heads-down privacy and small-group gatherings. Movable layout tables give those who prefer paper room to spread out, while large, easily clustered-around workstations inspire screen-sharing and conversation. “Ours is a low-density office layout that bucks the open-office trend,” says Dean Ota. “You have a dedicated space; it’s your home when you come to work. You’re not transient. And it works great for us,” interior designer and marketing lead Patti Corcoran adds.

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A galley kitchen with bar seating and an informal, open-on-three-sides meeting space (with whiteboards and a second large screen) form the heart of the suite, features the staff are just beginning to claim for communal lunches and pop-up meetings. Plentiful windows ring the room, providing daylighting (but are tempered by louvered blinds to ensure screens can be read), four enclosed offices are strategically placed to orient non-designer staff toward client walk-ins and partners toward a communal conference area, and smart use of odd angles abound, creating interesting nooks and views. “This is the first office space for us we’ve designed as a team,” Patti Corcoran mentions, “and we worked to make it our own.”

The buildout may be shiny and new and the wall colors fresh and bright, but alongside the custom choices, the firm’s pragmatic approach shows through in reuse and happy acceptance of existing elements. The granite-topped grand conference table came from a previous space (and served as a centerpiece design element, informing choices from color to casework). The kitchen was initially designed for the previous space up the street but was conceived to be movable; for its permanent home, we worked with cabinetmakers to re-configure the floating bar area for additional seating. Lighting for the main space was offered up by the building’s owners. And just the right amount of sunlight came free, with a strategic choice to place the office on the north side of the building. “We did a lot of value-engineering,” adds Michael. “We wanted to work off of what we were taking with us and build on it.”

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The result is balance – a blending of the best of old and new that feels not only comfortable but smart; a clear statement of the firm’s ethic as well as a clear statement of intent for its future.

COG is building better, one space at a time, but we’re starting right at home.