The Next Real Estate Boom: Prison Cells?

Rick Turley, president of Coldwell Banker residential brokerage in the Bay Area, said the prison has "unparalleled views" and could make a fantastic gated community. That is, a different sort of gated community.

The historic prison buildings might be converted into high-end condominiums and larger plots of land that could be set aside for mansions that Turley said could sell for $10 million to $20 million.

"The historical element could give it that quirky feel," he said. "It's truly a once-in-a-lifetime location. We'd be very excited about it, those of us in the housing industry."

But would you really want to live in a place that once housed Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy?

Well, people are doing it elsewhere in the country.

New Uses for Jails

Outside Detroit, in Jackson, Mich., a former 19th century prison was converted into subsidized housing for artists, along with gallery and classroom space. Armory Arts Village, as the former jail is now called, opened in January 2008 and includes 62 loft apartments. Artists get free gallery space in exchange for seven hours of community service each month.

In Texas, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is planning to open a satellite museum this summer at the former Central State Farm Prison in Sugar Land, and New York City's development agency has even looked at turning Bellevue Hospital's former psychiatric ward into a luxury hotel.

But the real appeal of these former institutions seems to be for hotels.

In 1996, the 65-room Four Seasons Istanbul opened up in Turkey's former Sultanahmet Prison. Then in 2005, British hotel chain Malmaison opened a hotel in Her Majesty's Prison Oxford in Oxfordshire, England.

The latest in the trend is Liberty Hotel, which opened in September 2007 at the site of Boston's former Charles Street Jail.

Richard L. Friedman, president and CEO of Carpenter and Co., developed the hotel with the help of historic tax credits. The hotel includes a bar called Alibi and a restaurant called CLINK. Cocktails include "The Key."

"Any building with great history is a good candidate for rehabilitation," he said. "The Liberty was particularly well-suited because what's now its lobby was its exercise facility, so it worked architecturally to convert it into a great space."

The key is to preserve enough of the original building so that you have a memory of what was there, but also transform it into something new.

"In today's day of the dull, ordinary, cookie-cutter hotels, people like the experience of being in a building that has some real character and a real history," Friedman said. "The trick is converting an unhappy place to a happy place."

Developers can't go too far or get too cute or else they channel the building's bad karma.

All can be fine "as long as you can make it fun and drive the bad spirits out," Friedman said. "We have themes but we don't take it too far. It's a fine balance."

Friedman has developed several hotels in San Francisco, including the St. Regis, and said that "San Quentin and Alcatraz are both incredibly attractive ideas for redevelopment."

"In the old days," he said, "they picked great sites."

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