Developers who are primarily targeting the demographic “barbells” of baby boomers and millennials shared on-the-ground experience at a ULI Spring Meeting session moderated by ULI Senior Fellow Maureen McAvey.
Matt Griffin, principal and managing partner of Seattle-based Pine Street Group, which focuses on urban walkable neighborhoods, said he “walks the walk” by living downtown, biking almost everywhere, and eschewing car ownership. His latest project, Via6, is a 654-unit apartment development in downtown Seattle located just a few blocks from a transit hub and boasting a perfect Walk Score of 100. “We didn’t even know that Amazon would build a 3 million-square-foot [279,000 sq m] facility just across the street,” he noted, “but we got lucky!”
With two 24-story towers that look down on the green roof of the first-floor retail and amenity level, Via6 was designed for “millennials of all ages,” Griffin said. The apartments, mostly studios and one-bedroom units, average only 715 square feet (66 sq m). The building’s extensive amenities are designed to build a sense of community and encourage residents, many of whom are young high-tech workers, to meet people and make friends outside of their workplaces.
The building’s ground-level retail and amenity space is open to the public and features a suite of food offerings under the banner of a well-known restaurateur Tom Douglas. The chef’s Assembly Hall comprises an Asian restaurant, a juice and coffee bar, and a market/deli selling freshly prepared foods. On the building’s seventh floor, residents can watch Douglas recording his televised cooking shows in the building’s demonstration kitchen. Other popular amenities at Via6 include a bike shop, a fitness center, an indoor/outdoor pavilion, a shopping gallery, concierge service, a barbershop, a pet care area, and a movie/gaming room.
In Vancouver, Jon Stovell, president of Reliance Properties, is creating even smaller apartments, called microlofts, to allow residents to live in sought-after downtown locations—essentially trading “space for place.” He also has converted heritage buildings into incubator space for startup entrepreneurs.
In one project, Reliance converted an old single-room-occupancy hotel into an apartment building with units that average only 265 square feet (25 sq m). These small, self-contained units have thoughtfully designed built-in features, including a Murphy bed; the bath is a single “wet room” with a drain in the middle of the floor. Amenities include an exercise room, a roof deck, a laundry room, and storage space, but there is no parking. “Many of our residents work within walking distance,” said Stovell. “They tend to be 25 to 32 years of age and are getting their own place for the first time.
Stovell applied the “small is beautiful” concept to a condominium project on the Victoria, British Columbia, waterfront, where 122 units sold in just three weeks at an average price of $150,000. “These are 300-square-foot [28 sq m] condos with a $3 million view,” he said. Some residents rent storage space for their kayaks.
These types of projects have debunked the myth that units with less than 600 square feet (56 sq m) of space would never rent or sell, said McAvey. It is also a myth that people choose micro-units only for reasons of economy; many buyers and renters in these innovative developments have six-figure incomes.
While the projects presented during the session have done well, success is not a given, the panelists agreed. Small residences must be carefully designed, and projects must have at least twice the common amenity space of conventional multifamily communities. City governments are fearful of creating a new type of tenement dwelling and may enforce a minimum per-unit size.
Said Stovell: “The key is to help them understand the livability of the suites themselves, the amount of amenities, and the advantage of offering an abundant urban realm outside the building.” Added Griffin: “A good analogy is what’s happened with technology: everything has shrunk.”