Banking on Individuality

As part of the Gables strategy “build to hold, not to sell,” new properties are designed with distinctive features to bring value to their neighborhoods

Experience shows that apartment companies that place customer satisfaction at the top of the list are likely to retain residents for the long haul. “Gables is dedicated to ‘Taking Care of the Way People Live,’” according to David D. Fitch, CEO, Gables Residential. Over the last 25 years the Atlanta-based company has delivered on this promise by focusing efforts on service excellence and distinctive and inviting living environments. “To produce ‘Forever Great’ apartment communities,” says Fitch, “takes creativity, superior location, great design and the highest-quality construction, all of which are reflected in each and every Gables home.”

Part of the Gables strategy for new construction is avoiding cookie cutter architecture. This approach is what caught the attention of the judges of MHN’s 2009 Excellence Awards. In fact, it launched a lengthy and lively discussion about the merits of a contemporary aesthetic (Gables Memorial Hills in Houston) vs. a more traditional look (Gables Villa Rosa Phase II in Dallas). Finally the decision was made to recognize both Gables projects with awards in the Mid-Rise category.

Designing for a long-term hold

Completed in June 2009, Gables Memorial Hills is a $48 million property on 2.68 acres in Houston. The eight-floor building comprises 305 units and a total of 349,036 gross sq. ft. Ziegler Cooper Architects was charged with creating a 115-unit-per-acre, high-density building of enduring design quality for a long-term hold, while maximizing the development potential of the site.

Another goal was to capitalize on the beautiful views of Houston’s downtown Central Business District and surrounding parkway. The south side of the building faces Memorial Drive. “It was the logical front door,” according to Ben Pisklak, regional vice president-investments, Gables. On the north side were older single-family homes that dictated placement of the garage. “The Downtown views are fantastic,” he adds, “so we designed units to maximize them.

“We [tend to be] very focused on a small geographic area in the cities where we build,” says Pisklak. “We select an Established Premium Neighborhood (EPN). These are areas with the highest per-square-foot value for single homes that already have retail, schools and employment centers in place for the single-family market. For example, in Houston, we have a lot of our assets in the River Oaks area.”

Gables Memorial Hills is on the outskirts of downtown Houston which does not have a defined architectural style or city restrictions. “You see a patchwork quilt,” explains Pisklak. “We drew from downtown influences and also from the examples of more contemporary elements in the area.” The predominant color pattern is the red brick also seen downtown.

“The eight-story building is cast in contrasting brick colors complimented by split face block on the first two floors, and the signature corner element of the design is clad in aluminum panels,” adds R. Scott Ziegler, AIA, principal of Ziegler Cooper Architects. “The curvilinear form of the building responds to the rambling bayou of Allen Parkway and breaks up the long mass of the façade.”

Since Gables sees itself as a steward of the community—with plans to hold the property—the architecture and design of the project needed to fit within the context of the existing area. “Certainly, if someone will pay for the asset, we’ll sell, but generally we’re not merchant builders. We’re building to hold, not to sell,” adds Pisklak. “Ziegler Cooper did a fantastic job. It’s one of the better architectural experiences that I’ve had in my career [in terms of] planning, design and execution.”

The primary challenges faced by the architectural team were “keeping the design within the mid-scale code for lower-cost construction and responding to the curvilinear site in a responsible fashion to offer a variety of unit types,” says Ziegler. The long and narrow site led to interesting geometry and layout. Performa for the project demanded a high-density solution. The unit mix was planned for 70 percent one-bedroom and 30 percent two-bedroom with an average unit size of 965 sq. ft. for a total of 305 units. And direct access was needed from residents’ parking levels to their apartment levels in order to minimize walking distance.

“The [solution],” explains Ziegler, “was a design that provided for a concrete frame post tensioned structural system with a cast-in-place garage of seven floors wrapped with apartment units.” According to Pisklak, concrete construction affords better condo convertability, less capital expenditure, and is good from a soundproofing perspective. “Houston, in the past, has seen wood frame construction. This is only the second concrete mid-rise multifamily construction in the last six years. “It’s a bit of a risk because of the market,” says Pisklak. “It costs more, so we’re expecting a higher rent—but that’s the risk. So far it has paid off. There’s more value in it.”

Gables Memorial Hills is currently about 63 percent leased which, Pisklak remarks, is a testament to the site and to the Houston market, which has fared better than most other national markets. “It has taken longer for the effects of the downturn to reach us,” he adds. “We’d like to get to 93 percent occupied, which would be stabilized. Our submarket is tough. A lot of supply is coming online. We’re very pleased with what we’ve achieved so far.”

Not surprisingly, residents are frequently on Facebook and Twitter, so common areas have been designed around that sociability. Amenities include 17,746 sq. ft. of shared space with TVs for viewing sporting events, a courtyard pool area, outdoor kitchen and fireplace for gatherings, large fitness center, party room with wine tasting bar and a laptop hub. “Our company mantra,” says Pisklak, “is the creation of great interior finishes in apartments coupled with great social spaces and amenities. This is what apartment renters demand these days.”

Attracting ‘renters by choice’

In Uptown Dallas, Gables collaborated with Looney Ricks Kiss to create a mixed-use project fashioned after the great resorts of the 20th century. The Galvez Hotel in Galveston was among the establishments that provided inspiration for the architectural team. Gables Villa Rosa Phase II has delivered 245 luxury units to the market and 56,000 sq. ft. of office and retail space in an eight-story tower.

“It’s a luxury building but not a high-rise. I think it’s the right product for this urban infill location,” says Doug Chesnut, senior vice president of investments at Gables Residential. “We ended up with over 100 units per acre. Gables has been doing more mixed-use because cities welcome them to urban infill sites. They want to keep it pedestrian,” he adds. But it was also important that the project have structured parking. The seven-story, above-grade garage is enclosed and can’t be seen from the street.

“We’ve found that, in terms of risk and complexity, mixed-use is much more challenging to build, but, from an apartment perspective, residents like it better—so it leases better, remarks Chesnut. He adds, “great streets and great mixes of use help the neighborhood stay vibrant and avoid becoming obsolete. The project has higher value, and it will remain strong in the second and third generations, unlike the trail of bad properties sometimes seen in the suburbs.

“We do a lot of projects with Looney Ricks Kiss. They understand our expectations,” says Chesnut. In this case, the location of Villa Rosa II required that it be a Dallas landmark—and, for Gables, a signature property in the city. “It made sense that [the design incorporated] cast stone around the base. They have a good understanding of how a building should be integrated with downtown. Flagstone is a theme that carries through Uptown Dallas. So we stayed with it. We spent a lot on the cast stones at the base and the tile on the roof,” he adds. “For the windows we went beyond just [the usual] surface mount with a lock. We also worked a great deal with the waterproofing consultant.”

According to Chesnut, Villa Rosa is stabilized with 92-93 percent occupancy. “The market is not great, but it has been stable for over a year. We came in above our projected rent amount.” The office space is full and the retail is 50 percent leased. Gables is currently in negotiation with one last retail user.

There was one surprise, recalls Chesnut. “You worry about the interior/core units: will they have enough glass and get enough light?” Surprisingly, these wound up being the most popular units. “We gave them great big outdoor balconies that people found very attractive. We spent a lot of time thinking through these types of things.”

Decisions made for Phase II were informed by lessons learned during Phase I. Then, average unit size was between 1,000 and 1,100 sq. ft. “We thought then that our demographic would be mid-30s to 40s with higher income. We did attract some of that group, but also we had an unexpectedly huge number of Echo Boomers [come on board]. We were surprised. So, going into Phase II we knew to expect them. Many work in Uptown. They have [well-paying] jobs. Some have roommates. The one-bedroom continues to be the most popular.” It’s 671 sq. ft. and currently renting for $1,200.

This part of Dallas attracts “renters by choice” who prefer the Uptown lifestyle over suburban living. For this demographic, the property offers hardwood floors, crown moldings, ten-foot ceilings and the kitchen islands typically found in single-family homes. “We’ve provided units with special finishes, eight-ft. doors, a lot of glass, great balconies, and touches such as vegetable sprayers in the kitchens. And the property is within walking distance of restaurants, shopping, the Katy Trail (a local park), and public transportation.”

Other amenities at Villa Rosa Phase II include a fitness center with massage room, two landscaped pools, outdoor fireplaces and a two-story, 10,000-sq. ft. clubhouse featuring a chef’s kitchen, library, billiards room and sundry store. There’s also a private massage room. “Also phenomenally successful are the private patio areas we’ve done for some apartments,” says Chesnut.

The property features gas lamps and original art from Europe. “Having art in the corridors is a real upgrade. It brings a certain air of civility,” says Chesnut. “We commissioned 100 paintings. That makes us special. Also, the corridors are air conditioned and carpeted, and we put music in the corridors. There’s always a table of fresh flowers in the lobby.”

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