Building amenity-filled suburban apartments to encourage community

Some suburbanites may not just expect more amenities in apartments; the larger push may be toward creating community rather than just rental units.

Tony Rossi, president of M&R Development, the company behind the Wilmette and Itasca properties, agrees that the “explosion of amenities” seen downtown is starting to take hold in the suburbs as well. He said rent in the suburbs is usually two-thirds of rent in the city, but newer buildings with extra features will have a higher price tag. Martin pays about $1,925 a month for her one-bedroom and underground parking…

Greenberg developed the project with more than 20 years of hospitality experience and considers design a key factor in changing the vibe and perception of suburban rental living. For example, adding color and art to corridors in apartment buildings, as hotels do, makes all the difference, he said.

And while some suburban developers merge residential and retail in the same physical structure — think storefronts at street level and housing on top — Greenberg said 444 Social is unique because the apartment building is new and located near (but not connected to) existing commercial facilities, like Regal Cinemas next door. It also has natural elements, like forests and a lake, nearby.

“This goes to part of the DNA of this place,” Greenberg said. “If you want to be happy, if you want to live a healthy life, if you want to stay active, you got to be social. … That is what is missing in apartments where it’s downtown or in the suburbs where you just go to a place and hole up. Here we’re actually creating a community, so it’s pushing that experience.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. Building apartments in certain ways does not guarantee that community will develop. Certain features of units, buildings, and the grounds could help encourage social interaction but it does not necessarily mean that it will happen.
  2. Apartments with more amenities and higher prices are likely to attract certain kinds of residents. Might it be easier or harder to create community among groups with more resources?
  3. I wonder how many residents in such apartments are interested in developing more community as opposed to enjoying a higher level of luxury or feeling that such apartments fit their cultural tastes (with connections to their social class).
  4. Are developers interested more in profits they can obtain through more amenities and higher rents or creating community?

More broadly, see an earlier post on “surban” places.

Linking the uniformity in the architecture of new apartment buildings to stick framing

The architectural commonalities among new apartment buildings may be connected to how the edifices are built:

The number of floors and the presence of a podium varies; the key unifying element, it turns out, is under the skin. They’re almost always made of softwood two-by-fours, or “stick,” in construction parlance, that have been nailed together in frames like those in suburban tract houses.

The method traces to 1830s Chicago, a boomtown with vast forests nearby. Nailing together thin, precut wooden boards into a “balloon frame” allowed for the rapid construction of “a simple cage which the builder can surface within and without with any desired material,” the architect Walker Field wrote in 1943. “It exemplifies those twin conditions that underlie all that is American in our building arts: the chronic shortage of skilled labor, and the almost universal use of wood.” The balloon frame and its variants still dominate single-family homebuilding in the U.S. and Canada. It’s also standard in Australia and New Zealand, and pretty big in Japan, but not in the rest of the world.

In the U.S., stick framing appears to have become the default construction method for apartment complexes as well. The big reason is that it costs much less—I heard estimates from 20 percent to 40 percent less—than building with concrete, steel, or masonry. Those industries have sponsored several studies disputing the gap, but most builders clearly think it exists…

The advance of the mid-rise stick building has come with less fanfare, and left local officials and even some in the building industry surprised and unsettled. “It’s a plague, and it happened when no one was watching,” says Steven Zirinsky, building code committee co-chairman for the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects. What caught his attention was a blaze that broke out in January 2015 at the Avalon apartments in Edgewater, N.J., across the Hudson River from his home. “When I could read a book in my apartment by the flame of that fire,” he says, “I knew there was a problem.” Ignited by a maintenance worker’s torch, the fire spread through concealed spaces in the floors and attic of the four-story complex, abetted by a partial sprinkler system that didn’t cover those areas. No one died, but the building was destroyed.

Cutting building costs makes sense. Still: if the costs of construction are reduced, this means there could be more money for interesting architectural or design elements. Enhancing the building in this way could lead to higher rents. (Of course, this assumes Americans are willing to pay a little more for apartment buildings that look good. I could imagine why this may not be the case. See the appeal of ranch homes – though not modernist homes.) Are there some developers out there who see value, aesthetically or monetarily, in helping their “stumpie” complex stand out?

I still marvel at times at this ingenuity in building homes and houses with balloon frames and its descendents: take standardized sizes of mass-produced wood and millions of dwellings are born. The pieces of this supply chain that had to come into place for this to be possible is interesting to consider as is the permanence of such dwellings that are based on frames of two-by-fours.

Fighting against McMansion apartment buildings

One commentator suggests apartments enabled by transit oriented development regulations in Los Angeles will be like McMansions in residential neighborhoods:

The development in question is on the 1500 block of South Orange Grove Avenue, a modest residential neighborhood one block east of Fairfax and two blocks south of Pico. The proposed structure is a five story, twenty-eight unit apartment building, replacing a single-family home and a duplex. It would be the tallest building in the neighborhood by two stories. The artist’s rendering above shows how it would impact the neighbors on the abutting block of Ogden.

Yet this particular building is only the first of many to come in Picfair Village and other areas throughout Los Angeles, transforming the character of our neighborhoods and adding boxy, out-of-scale buildings to a city already plagued by terrible traffic and failing infrastructure. Though the planning commission turns up its nose at the unappealing designs, they never fail to move the projects forward…

The bulk of this development is being done under the auspices of Measure JJJ, transformed by the City Planning Commission into Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) Guidelines. Shrugging their shoulders of any responsibility, the City Planning Commission’s members, along with City Planning Department staff (also busy with the equally pernicious Purple Line extension upzoning plan), fondly refer to the TOC Guidelines as “the will of the people,” washing their hands of responsibility…

For whatever reason, City Hall and City Planning Commission members are embracing the TOC Guidelines and fully abetting developers’ plans to move full steam ahead with real estate projects that will drastically alter the character of our neighborhood and many others throughout Los Angeles.

The term McMansion refers to a single-family home. The headline for this commentary – the text of the piece itself does not use the term McMansion – uses the term to describe a certain kind of apartment building: ones that will tower over blocks of single-family homes. While these apartments are not oversized single-family homes, they may have a similar effect to many McMansions with significant size and a change in scale. The commentator suggests this will alter how these blocks are experienced, particularly for those in homes adjacent to the apartment buildings.

The broader use of the term McMansion could be applied to a number of items. For example, I recall seeing articles in the early 2000s comparing boats and other consumer goods to McMansions. Generally, this use would refer to a supersized and/or extra luxurious model. Applying the idea to other kinds of housing could prove trickier. Could you have a McMansion tiny house? A McMansion accessory dwelling unit? A McMansion condo high-rise? Broadening the term to more housing could make a fairly complex idea – with at least four traits – even more complicated.

Who owns large apartment complexes in downtown Wheaton?

The national and international flow of capital in real estate is a well-established phenomena in the biggest cities but it is recognized less in suburbs. Here is an example of this in Wheaton, Illinois:

In the bigger deal, San Francisco-based FPA Multifamily acquired Wheaton Center, a 758-unit property in downtown Wheaton, from Edge Principal Advisors of New York, according to a statement from HFF, the brokerage that arranged the sale.

It’s unclear how much FPA paid—the statement did not include a price and FPA and Edge representatives did not return calls—but the property was expected to fetch about $135 million, according to Real Estate Alert, a trade publication. At that price, the sale would generate a big profit for Edge, which paid $44 million for Wheaton Center in 2014 and invested about $40 million in a major renovation.

The seller of the other property might want to forget about Wheaton altogether. Invesco, an Atlanta-based pension fund adviser, sold Wheaton 121, a 306-unit apartment complex that opened in 2014, for $72 million, according to Connor Group, the Ohio investment firm that bought the property. That’s nearly 25 percent less than the $95.8 million Invesco paid in 2015 for the complex, 121 N. Cross St.

The main culprit: property taxes. Wheaton 121’s taxes rose so much after Invesco bought it that the added expense significantly depressed the property’s value, according to people familiar with the complex. A jump in the property’s assessed value pushed Invesco’s 2018 tax bill up to $2.0 million, a whopping 47 percent increase from 2016, according to DuPage County records.

I suspect most suburbanites know little about who owns major pieces of land in their community, let alone who owns large apartment buildings (which may be more or less common depending on the suburb). Unless the owner makes a big deal of their ownership with signs or presence in the community, daily life just moves on.

But, this infusion of money from far away could have a significant influence on a suburb. Local developers may not be interested in sizable projects or may not be able to access the same amounts of capital. At the same time, a local developer may be more attuned to local conditions. Presumably, all the owners of nicer properties want to be seen as good actors in the suburb but they may have varying levels of involvement and commitment to the exact community.

The joint spread of McMansions and apartments in Charlotte

Rarely are the evils of McMansions and apartment complexes joined together but one observer in Charlotte suggests this is exactly the case:

As a 20-year resident of Charlotte, I’ve long observed that shoehorning apartment complexes and oversized homes in and around uptown does not prevent sprawl. Apartment complexes and McMansions are popping up like mushrooms in our historic uptown neighborhoods, yet sprawl has accelerated.

I strongly suspect we’re being sold a bill of goods by elected officials who are firmly under the thumbs of developers. Developers need us to believe they’re doing something for the greater good so we’ll allow them to destroy the character and design of our historic neighborhoods.

At first glance, these are two very different kinds of development. Apartments bring density and certain kinds of residents (whether lower-status residents in the eyes of neighbors or wealthy renters who are gentrifying places). They may include tall buildings or a lot of buildings. In contrast, McMansions are large ostentatious homes that may be teardowns (replacing smaller, older homes). They may not loom over surrounding area like apartments and generally McMansion residents are well off but the change in housing unit may be just as stark.

What appears to be the common thread of concern from this one resident is that both kinds of development are different than what is currently there. If I had to guess, these “historic uptown neighborhoods” are filled with well-kept, single-family homes with decent sized lots built decades ago. Both the McMansions and apartments, in their own ways, present very different kinds of structures. The same concerns might be leveled against an ultra-modernist home or a block of row houses: they are not like what is already in the neighborhood.

Often, McMansions or apartments are restricted to areas of similar structures. This is typically the purpose of zoning: keeping single-family homes away from land uses that residents fear might disturb the neighborhood’s character, and, ultimately, their property values. When developers or local officials start mixing uses, particularly in established areas, this may not go well at the beginning.

Construction of apartments increases in the Chicago suburbs

The pace of apartment construction is at the highest in the Chicago region since 2004:

Rental construction reached its highest level in more than a decade last year in the Chicago suburbs, and 2018 is shaping up as another busy year. More than 4,200 units were completed in 2017, and about 3,900 more units are projected for this year, according to data from Marcus & Millichap and MPF Research…

The rental resurgence is the result of several factors, including a rising disparity between suburban and downtown rents, pent-up demand after little new construction over the past decade, and declining home ownership, industry experts say…

Unlike downtown Chicago, where much of the development is clustered together, many suburban projects are miles from another new development, meaning they face minimal competition for new renters…

“Now, with condo development just about going away, you’re seeing towns and cities giving building permits to apartment projects they wouldn’t have considered a few years ago. Also, I think apartments have lost some of their stigma because now they’re so damn nice.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. While this may be an increase in apartment units, this is still behind the construction of single-family homes. For example, the Chicago region had 6,000+ new housing starts for single-family homes in 2016.
  2. It is interesting to note where the apartments are being built: probably in desirable communities (relatively wealthy, close to jobs and amenities) and often in downtown areas (this is cited in this same article). To flip this around, apartments are not desired everywhere or by all suburban communities.
  3. Will the trend toward apartments in the suburbs continue to increase? This might be a correction to a lack of apartment construction in the last decade or it might represent an enduring change as suburban residents desire more rental units.

Overall, apartments in the suburbs are relatively unique compared to the overwhelming preference for owner-occupied units. Thus, the numbers regarding apartment construction in the suburbs bears watching.

Arms race among new luxury apartments includes live-in musicians

If you have the resources, you have some options in shopping for a nice new apartment including a building musician:

Amenities for high rise buildings are generally culled from a well-honed list of known popular offerings—a lounge, gym, a pool, an outdoor deck, and grilling stations wouldn’t really lead anyone to blink an eyelash. Being LEED certified is often expected.

At the 34-story, 298-unit Exhibit on Superior, amenities for the studio, convertible, and 1 to 3-bedroom units include those, as well as keyless entry with smartphone integration, stainless steel appliances, in-unit washer and dryer and more. Quite nice—but the downtown luxury apartment market glut has led to an arms race to attract new residents and keep rents from being slashed.

And even though the price point is comparably lower (and the floor plans are comparably smaller) than other neighborhood offerings to attract a younger demographic, developer Magellan Development Group and MAC Management wanted to bring some artistry and magic to their building (and to their other properties, if this catches on). Here’s the idea.

A contest is open for the best acoustic guitarist and vocalist to live and play for one year at Exhibit on Superior. The winning musician gets free rent at an unfurnished studio for a year, the title of Musician in Residence, and the chance to hone their skills while playing against any number of cool nooks and spaces in the bKL Architecture-designed building. The residents get in-house live entertainment and bragging rights to live in a building with the first so-called Exhibit A-Lister.

My first thought was that sounds like the arms race among colleges to provide amenities for prospective students ranging from excellent food, state of the art gyms, and private and luxurious dorms. Then it hit me: these luxury apartment buildings may be going after that same demographic: college graduates who want the excitement of the city. If we could narrow it even more, perhaps they are employed in a creative industry or field.

After thinking this through a bit, it is clever to pair residential real estate with music. We might expect something like this in commercial spaces or privately-owned property that is trying to operate like public space (perhaps a park like area outside a major office building). But, this continues the trend of some of the other “weapons” in this residential arms race: providing building amenities that encourage sociability while simultaneously offering well-appointed private units. Let’s hope all the residents like the acoustic guitar scene…