The Wash Mahal. That is how a friend of Buz Knyal described Uptown Auto Spa. And it is hard to argue with the moniker.
The Temecula, CA wash truly is a wonder of the car wash world. It features an architectural design that rivals any over-the-top car wash site ever built. Modeled after Temecula’s ornate city hall, the wash is the first in what Knyal plans will be many Uptown Auto Spas in Southern California.
The car wash business is a third career for Knyal. The largest investor in Uptown was the CEO of Franchise Mortgage Acceptance Company (FMAC) in the ‘90s, which at the time was the biggest lender to the gas station, convenience store, and car wash industries. Following a brief retirement. Knyal was part of a real estate investment group focused on cell phone tower land leases, that owned the land under 4,500 towers around the country. Once Knyal and his fellow investors cashed in on their land-lease company he was once again retired and looking for the next big thing.
While playing golf with Brett Overman, owner of the massive Zips Car Wash chain, Knyal was inspired to build a chain of express exterior car washes. He was aware of a piece of land in sought-after Temecula that would be the perfect home for a car wash, but unfortunately the city of Temecula didn’t agree.
There were preliminary plans in place for a public park on the one-acre site, but Knyal was able to get his car wash plan approved by the city council as long as the wash “didn’t look like a car wash.” It was that directive that led to the wash’s impressive architectural design and the basis for all future Uptown car washes.
“In order to get it entitled we had to build the car wash to be a mirror image of Temecula City Hall,” Knyal says. “It is truly amazing how alike they look. There is a dome on the top of city hall and we decided to use that as our trademark. We are currently building our second site in Loma Linda, which will have a smaller version of the dome, as will every other wash we build.”
While Knyal has a background on the finance side of the car wash business, Uptown Auto Spa is his first foray into car wash ownership. As any car wash investor/builder can attest developing car washes can be a tricky business for veterans and rookies alike.
Thanks to the city of Temecula’s reluctance to allow a wash on the site it took over three years from the time Knyal bought the tract of land that would become Uptown’s home till construction began. In addition to the zoning headaches, the build was faced with environmental, historical, and weather roadblocks that gave Knyal a crash course in the challenges of car wash development.
“We had zero experience building a car wash business from scratch and had as many fits and starts as you could imagine,” Knyal says. “As we talk about them now they are laughable to us. But this project had a unique set of challenges.”
The development featured a host of distinctive roadblocks that added a level of complexity to the build. As a one-acre site in California, a storm water collection system had to be installed around the perimeter of the property to corral and strain all rainwater runoff before it is released into the sewer system. Interestingly, it rarely rains in Southern California but during Uptown’s construction the area experienced its most prolific rainfall in years, significantly delaying construction.
In addition to the zoning and weather concerns, Uptown needed to contend with the historical rights of the nearby Pechanga Indian Reservation. Although the site was previously developed and was the long-time home of a gas station, the entire digging process had to be overseen by the Pechanga tribe to ensure that if any historical artifacts were uncovered they were properly preserved.
Knyal has plans to build and operate around 10 Uptowns in Southern California. The challenges he encountered in his first build opened his eyes to the complexity of car wash development, prompting some innovative changes that will be implemented on future sites.
The second Uptown site is currently being built, and a management staff is being sought so the site will be ready to launch in Loma Linda some time this spring. While contractors are busy at the site setting up the utilities and pouring the foundation, the car wash tunnel and building are being built offsite to speed up the process and help avoid any weather related delays.
The modular building is shipped to the location in pieces and requires onsite contractors to simply attach the joints and build the outer façade. In addition to the structure, the car wash tunnel is also going to be designed and built offsite to allow for simultaneous development of the land, building, and wash equipment.
The new site will primarily feature AVW wash equipment, which will be shipped from the factory directly to Madison Industries. At Madison Industries the entire tunnel and equipment room will be constructed and then shipped directly to Loma Linda ready for a quick and seamless installati
“A big part of what happens on an actual job site is congestion, says Dave Jenkins, executive vice president of site development, Uptown Auto Spa. “Right now the building is being built in the factory and we have the site going full steam. Everything is being built side by side. The site will be done when the building shows up.
“We are huge fans of this approach,” Knyal says. “Even if there are glitches along the way it is still a better outcome than if we were building conventionally. When you hire a general contractor to oversee the construction of a site the first thing they do is tell you how much it costs to supervise the site every day and that is a large number. There is a person onsite every day and some kind of security at night. Any delay and that supervision price continues to run. All of that is removed when you do it in the factory.”
In addition to its modular approach to construction, Uptown has another trick up its sleeve as it looks to develop and build one new site every year for the next several years.
“The building’s plans have been filed with the state of California,” Jenkins says. “We have received a part number for the building. That means that we can build exactly the same building anywhere in the state. All the sewer, electrical, etc. are all pre approved.”
Uptown’s beautiful architecture and construction are rivaled only by its steady and aggressive expansion plans. While growing from one site to its ultimate goal of 10 will surely be a challenge, Knyal is confident that his financial background and lessons learned building his first site will serve Uptown well as it scales up. “Each of our locations will need to stand on its own from a profitability standpoint,” he says. “We will build as many sites that make sense.”