Amenities are king

Developers are putting a whole new spin on resident amenities. In fact, studios for spinning classes -- in which indoor, group workouts on stationary bikes simulate cross-country treks -- are now gearing up in a number of multifamily communities. "Offering a spin instructor for classes is one thing that helps create a greater sense of community," reports Holin Barber, southwestern regional marketing manager at Lincoln Property Co., Dallas. According to Barber, her company has put spin rooms into several new, upscale rental properties.

As amenities have become more of a given in multifamily communities, at both for-sale and for-rent properties, developers have to evaluate which features are truly desired and what they can do to stand out from the crowd. And with slowing sales on the condo side and a growing inventory of product competing for tenants, the management of amenities takes on new significance.

In some high-end communities, residents now have the option to reserve wine cellars and screening rooms for dinner parties and other gatherings. Wine refrigerators are being included as standard equipment in a number of condos. Wiring for high-speed Internet access and cable or digital TV is becoming more widespread. A few high-end condos offer exclusive FreshDirect grocery delivery service that lowers the minimum order amount required and prioritizes delivery times. Several developers have arranged to place Zipcars, the country's largest car-sharing service, on-site as a tenant amenity so that residents can easily rent them by the hour or the day.And firepits on pool decks have remained popular.

Other growing amenities are WiFi in common areas, yoga studios, Playstation or gaming rooms, and refrigerated storage lockers to hold deliveries of food, wine and flowers. A less-glamorous but certainly practical amenity is the basement storage locker, which is being sold or rented as a separate item.

Since amenities have become standard and expected at many apartment properties, developers need to make sure that they are effective and distinctive, says Rainbow Russell, general manager of The Bernardin, a luxury rental on Chicago's Near North Side that recently earned the Chicagoland Apartment Association's CAMME Award for Best Community Amenities in the one- to 300-unit category. Managed by Chicago-based McCaffery Interests, the 171-unit Bernardin opened early in the summer of 2005. Monthly rents at the 25-story high rise range from $1,320 for studios to $6,205 for penthouses. The Bernardin's Italian-inspired multi-colored facade features shutters, flower boxes, cornices and other architectural details. Its sixth floor houses a fully equipped fitness center, Pilates/yoga studio, activity/billiards room, business center, landscaped terrace, heated lap pool, gazebo and outdoor fireplace. In addition, the building has a full-time concierge, storage lockers and an attached parking garage with controlled apartment access for all residents.

"Amenities create a lifestyle of convenience and luxury," Russell notes. "I believe the reason The Bernardin is so successful and won the CAMMEs is due to the feeling or comfort level a resident has at the pool, the activities room and elsewhere." For example, she's noticed that each weekday morning, residents enjoy spending time in The Bernardin's well-appointed, comfortable lobby, reading newspapers and sipping complimentary coffee.

Interior design and space configuration are very important when discussing amenities, Russell explains, because it can influence whether the resident is going to want to use the amenities. For example, The Bernardin's fitness center looks out at the pool so when people run on the treadmill, they have a pleasant view. The activities room is decorated in warm colors with comfortable furniture, creating an inviting atmosphere for entertaining and also has a small refrigerator, ice maker and mini kitchen. "From our lobby to the activities room, the amenities at The Bernardin are an extension of each of our residents' homes," Russell says.

While some industry observers thought that the need for a business center might be eliminated as more people own their own computers, Russell says she's seen that residents continue to use the business center frequently. In fact, the property she'd previously managed in Chicago was built without a business center but one was added shortly before Russell left for her current assignment. She believes that there are several reasons why residents like to have a business center -- some people use their condos as a second home, so their home office is set up in a different residence. Others may be graduate students or small business owners, and so on. "What a business center does," Russell notes, "is provide a convenient outlet for faxes, printing and copying without the need to leave the building to go to an office."

Arthur Gallego, vice president of SHVO Marketing, a New York marketing and sales firm known for its work on high-profile, high-end condominiums, stressed that amenities have to be useful, well thought out and practical -- even if these amenities are considered luxuries. "Are these amenities ones that residents really want? Will they be used?" he asks. "Are they 'practical' luxuries? Are these amenities well done and attractive?" SHVO conducts surveys and focus groups to pin down specifics on amenity packages, such as how many treadmills and what sorts of machines should be in a community's fitness center.

Furthermore, Gallego adds, it's not just the amenity itself but its quality, placement and extent. For example, are outlets and Internet connections in the right places in a residence? Are there enough of them? And is it high-quality wiring?

"WiFi in common areas is a hot feature in new developments," reports Barber, whose territory encompasses Texas, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. Pool areas are also getting more lavish, she says, incorporating fountains and sundecks. Higher-end high-rises are even installing infinity-edge pools.

Creating comfortable environments

In keeping with the German Bauhaus style of architecture at Met Lofts in the South Park area of downtown Los Angeles, this for-rent property coincidentally has a German Shepherd mascot by the name of LiLi. This 1 1/2-year-old rescue dog embodies the building's pet-friendly approach. In fact, the building owner, Forest City Residential West, expanded the Met Lofts' number of dog-friendly floors from one to three in response to increased demand.

LiLi lives on-site with Met Lofts Director of Resident Services Nathan Leible and comes to work in the office every weekday. Her on-site birthday party attracted 45 residents. This talented puppy even "pens" her own column -- "LiLi's Corner" -- in the community newsletter and helps generate positive publicity for the property. (Another Forest City property in L.A. also has a popular canine mascot.)

Having a dog in the office and lobby creates a warm atmosphere, Leible says. He reports that more people sign longer-term leases at this community, which opened in December 2005, because they are comfortable at the property, and Leible gives LiLi a lot of the credit for that. "She's helped create more of a laid-back atmosphere here; people see a dog playing in the lobby or office and feel more at home." Monthly rents at the 111-loft complex range from $1,600 to $4,800.

Met Lofts has a dog walk area with grass and sprinklers at the rear of its property as well as a station with clean-up supplies. Building managers prepared their own "Doggie 555" map that highlights area pet groomers, pet food supplies and other services located within a five-minute, five-block and five-mile radius of Met Lofts since most residents are new to downtown. For a lot of Angelinos, Leible points out, their dogs or cats are like children, "so we felt it important to embrace that."

Besides warm and fuzzy amenities for pets and their owners, Met Lofts also features a $1-million interactive electronic art installation that lights up the building's exterior as well as a number of other popular amenities, like a screening room, game room, fitness center, lap pool with sundeck and 24-hour front desk. With buyers -- and renters -- having more access to information via the Internet and easily able to compare other properties, every detail on items like amenities takes on more importance today.

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