Community Living

When one traditionally thinks of garden apartments, sprawling suburban communities with plenty of open green space often come to mind. But with suburban sprawl quickly becoming a thing of the past, and with an emerging demographic of Generation Y renters who tend to desire closer proximity to the city, the new garden apartment communities are more urban than ever before.

When one traditionally thinks of garden apartments, sprawling suburban communities with plenty of open green space often come to mind. But with suburban sprawl quickly becoming a thing of the past, and with an emerging demographic of Generation Y renters who tend to desire closer proximity to the city, the new garden apartment communities are more urban than ever before.

Amenities are particularly key in this style of housing, especially in terms of creating social gathering spaces for residents to interact with one another. “That’s what sells the product—the amenities. Residents are demanding they be available 24/7 with a key fob—they are becoming the living room,” reports Sanford Steinberg, AIA, principal, Steinberg Design Collaborative LLP. “They are the town center and the gathering [place] for the community. Gen Y doesn’t spend time in the units. They want to be out where everyone is.”

As a result of this demand for ample community/ amenity space, the size of the units is also changing. Floor plans are becoming much smaller as the amenity space explodes, asserts Steinberg. “Floor plans are, if possible, becoming more open than in the past,” he adds, with both the loft aesthetic and Generation Y pushing the market toward this movement. “What we have been doing in our new floor plans is [combining] the living room, dining room and kitchen as one big room. The kitchen is an L-shape against the wall—no island. It’s one big space, giving the resident the opportunity to input their design into the room.”

A domain of amenities

This trend—large amenity spaces with relatively smaller residences—was incorporated into Simmons Vedder Partners’ Domain at CityCentre in Houston, which Steinberg was commissioned to design.

Domain offers 10,000 square feet of amenity space, including a pool with sundecks and private cabanas, a 2,000-square-foot fitness center, business center and conference room, an outdoor fireplace and patio grill, three separate courtyards and a clubhouse that features a theater, demonstration kitchen, coffee bar and a gaming room that is set up to be similar to an arcade. In addition to the amenities, the building offers a structured parking garage at its center.

“The amenities, at the end of the day, are a social function,” observes Jonathan Brinsden, executive vice president and COO of Midway Cos., the master developer of CityCentre. “I think if you strip all that back, they are social amenities, and residents do demand those areas within the projects to interact with other residents.”

Domain is a four-story, 370-unit apartment building that Brad Freels, chairman and CEO of Midway Cos., describes as “more of a garden product, just a little denser.” In fact, while the majority of the target demographic for the property is young professionals looking for an urban lifestyle, Freels notes that there are quite a few “empty nesters moving out of a large home who don’t want to purchase something or are trying urban living for the first time.”

As far as how the amenities attract both ends of the demographic spectrum, Steinberg notes, “seniors love it because they can talk to people,” and Gen Y demands it now that student housing has mainly gone to the private sector. “We have been building small apartments [for student housing], but then we blow out the amenities. I think we trained [Gen Y renters] that now they are expecting it in apartment living,” asserts Steinberg.

Domain is part of the 37-acre, $500 million mixed-use CityCentre that is slated to feature 677 residences—including the 370 units at Domain, 250 lofts, 35 brownstones, 22 penthouses (atop a 242-room hotel)—425,000 square feet of office space, a 149,000-square-foot fitness facility and a 30,000-square-foot conference center.

Admittedly, notes Brinsden, there is not much zoning available for multifamily communities in Houston—which may certainly play a role in Midway’s decision to create the denser building. And, because of the lack of available land, Domain represents the first Class A apartments built in the city since 1974.

Despite its being just one piece of a much larger puzzle, however, Brinsden notes that Domain is designed to stand on its own and was created to serve as the more traditional suburban living option at CityCentre. “Due to the unparalleled amenities that CityCentre offers residents, we believe both the Lofts and the Domain will attract residents from urban and suburban communities,” he notes. “The lifestyle afforded by living within a true pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development is rare in Houston.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between the urban Domain, which offers one-, two- and three-bedroom residences ranging from 650 to 1,421 square feet, and the more traditional garden apartment communities is the proximity of the amenity space to the residences.

“A lot of times the newer [garden-style apartments] have amenity packages, but they are so far skewed from units that the chance of tenants using them is not there,” observes Freels. In this more traditional setting, the site configuration is long and narrow, units get pushed back and the leasing office tends to be close to the leasing office—great for prospects to see but not all that useful for real residents, he adds. At Domain, the amenities are more central to all apartments, increasing the visibility of the space—as well as the likelihood it will actually be used—to current residents.

The flow from suburban to urban

Another low-rise development that features an immense amount of amenity space is Aquatera in San Diego. H.G. Fenton Co.’s six-building, 254-unit apartment community in Mission Valley is located on a 19-acre site, a former quarry that has been revitalized to provide housing. Its more spacious site plan allows for a less dense community than Domain and demonstrates a more traditional garden-style community—in an urban environment.

Similar to Domain, Aquatera’s appeal is focused on its expansive amenity package, which includes a 10,300-square-foot, two-story clubhouse that features a professional culinary kitchen, gaming center with Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstations and billiards and overlooks a saltwater pool with cabanas, an elevated spa and barbecue islands. In addition, the community offers a 24-hour sports club, cyber café and lounge, private tanning bay, and fire pit lounge.

“This, coupled with the lifestyle orientation of the clubhouse, provides a central gathering point for residents of the surrounding buildings,” explains Mike Neal, president and CEO of H.G. Fenton Company. “Residents want the ability to pursue their lifestyle activities right at home.”

Adding to its extensive list of onsite amenities is Aquatera’s proximity to downtown services and entertainment venues, which contributes to its appeal to both the typical urban and suburban renter, notes Neal.

The development’s name even revolves around the community concept. Named to reflect the history and character of its site, “Aqua” reflects the community’s water theme, while “Tera,” (a unique spelling for “terra,”) evolved from the site’s former use as a quarry. “The name captures the flowing lifestyle features incorporated into the project, such as a dramatic cascading hillside waterfall that serves as the backdrop to the project and numerous contemporary water elements surrounding the pool,” says Neal. “The name’s accurate reflection of the community concept has been integral to the success of the leasing effort.” (The community is currently more than 75 percent leased.)

Recently named “Water Smart Project” for 2009 by San Diego County Water Authority, Aquatera’s common-area water features are served by a well that is fed by the site’s underground aquifers. “To enhance the feeling of ‘place,’ a waterfall cascades down the hillside, providing a dramatic backdrop for the project and reinforces the water theme (inspired by the natural underground aquifers on the site),” Neal explains.

A well, fed by underground aquifers, serves Aquatera’s numerous common area water elements, and on-site weather stations maximize water efficiency. Other eco-friendly features at the community include a 216-kilowatt photovoltaic energy solar system that supplies 90 percent of the electricity to all common areas (solar energy also heats the saltwater pool); solar shades in the club room; low-E windows in all buildings; and an electric vehicle charging station.

Designed by Architects Orange, Aquatera offers one-, two- and three-bedrooms residences, ranging from 729 to 1,370 square feet. The residences themselves also feature conveniences often seen in garden-style communities such as private, single-car garages; intrusion alarms; and in-unit washers and dryers.

Created in the Craftsmen-style, its low-rise structure was mainly designed to blend into the surrounding area, which is comprised predominantly of similar structures. However, Neal notes, “the upscale contemporary design of the homes competes well with the newer, trendy high-rise condominium and apartment projects downtown.”

So does this shift from the suburban to the urban suggest a move away from the garden-style apartment? Steinberg doesn’t think so.  He says that colleagues have suggested that “the garden apartment community will always be here.” He adds, “It’s just how we design the community and the magic of how you arrange the buildings to create the community.”

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