Washington Post: Apartment and condo communities get inventive to keep residents safe and connected during the pandemic

Posted by STEER On August 6, 2020

Apartments and condominiums, known in real estate parlance as “multifamily” residences, are by definition places where neighbors live in proximity. For many residents of these buildings, a prime perk is the ability to get fit, co-work and socialize all in one place.

The novel coronavirus led to an immediate shutdown of most of these shared amenity spaces as well as a new point of view about how to improve health, cleanliness and safety while providing room for social interaction.

“Safety is the paramount concern for everyone,” says Clint Mann, president of Urban Pace, a condo sales, marketing and advisory firm in Washington. “We immediately instituted new cleaning regimens for common areas, elevators and model homes, and closed amenity spaces in all buildings.”

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated several trends that are likely to change the way apartments and condos are designed in the future, says Greg Fitchitt, Columbia president of the Howard Hughes Corp., developer of the Juniper apartments in the Merriweather District of downtown Columbia, Md.

“Working from home is likely to continue or become more frequent for people, which means developers will need to add office space in units or design co-working spaces that can include some private spaces,” says Fitchitt. “Outdoor space is more important than ever, with people appreciating a connection to nature when they couldn’t go to their usual places. People will be looking for personal outdoor space as well as easier access to shared outdoor space.”

Being social while distancing
Social interaction drives the choice of residence for many condo and apartment buyers.

Fitness centers are a high-touch area, and the spaces are closed in most buildings and being adapted for future safety. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
“Closing all the amenity spaces was like throwing cold water on our residents,” says David Raley, general manager of 1331 Maryland Ave. SW, an apartment building in Washington. “We slammed the brakes on the rooftop gatherings, canceled our speaker series and parties, and immediately limited maintenance to emergencies to limit the transmission of the virus between residents and staff.”

The pandemic inspired property managers to get creative with ways to keep residents safe and yet engaged with neighbors. Just as office co-workers, schools and families quickly learned to use online platforms such as Zoom and Google Hangouts, so did building managers. Virtual happy hours, trivia contests and fitness classes began connecting residents who could not see each other in person.

At Juniper, residents were treated to “Color Bursts of Joy,” virtual events named after the adjacent Color Burst Park, says Vanessa Rodriguez, vice president of marketing of the Howard Hughes Corp.

“We partnered with local companies and artists to provide virtual cocktail making classes, a wine tasting event for Mother’s Day and a curated playlist by the decades of the most memorable shows at Merriweather Post Pavilion, which is adjacent to Juniper,” says Rodriguez. “We have an artist-in-residence program and hosted more than 50 kids in a comic book workshop with a Marvel comic illustrator.”

Other virtual offerings included a haiku class with a local professor and a coding class for middle school students interested in video games.

“Our property managers started lots of fun initiatives right away such as a balcony decorating contest and delivering ‘quarantini’ recipes and mixers to residents,” says Lauren Campbell, director of operations for Crescent Communities, which owns and operates apartments in numerous cities, including Novel South Capitol in Washington. “Residents came up with fun names for cocktails and posted them on social media. We also arranged for food trucks to deliver preordered food and even a flower truck that delivered bouquets to nurses and first responders.”

An unexpected benefit, says Campbell, is that many of the more introverted residents who don’t normally participate in rooftop parties joined the virtual events.

“This has been eye-opening, and we think in the future we may see a hybrid of programs with some virtual events continuing,” says Campbell.

At Maryland Avenue, virtual trivia nights were an instant hit, says Raley.

“We organized weekly virtual fitness classes, and the book club was so popular we had to split it into two separate groups,” he says.

Raley says he went from holding two organized events per month to 18 virtual events in May for Maryland Avenue residents, including a pet fashion show and a painting class. To support local restaurants, he partnered with Reverie, Masseria, ABC Pony and Punjab Grill to arrange for residents to order meals from the same place on the same night and post photos on social media.

At the Residences at Eastern Market, a monthly residents-only brunch pivoted to a room service champagne brunch delivered to residents’ doors, says Philippe Lanier, principal at EastBanc.

“We’re doing Zoom trivia nights and happy hours and holding virtual yoga classes led by an instructor from our fitness center,” Lanier says. “The building has a courtyard and interior balconies, so we’ve been able to host jazz in the courtyard that people can hear from their apartments.”

New protocols

An issue that causes high anxiety for residents and building operators is elevators. While cleaning the doors and buttons frequently was immediately instituted in buildings, many also requested that residents limit the people in the elevator at any one time to members of their household.

Fitness centers are another high-touch area, and the spaces are closed in most buildings and being adapted for future safety. At some smaller luxury buildings, such as the Lauren in Bethesda, the fitness center could be opened by appointment for one resident at a time and then disinfected after each use, says Mann.

At Novel, the equipment is being rearranged for more distance, and some machines may be put out of service, says Campbell.

“The equipment will be constantly cleaned with electrostatic fogging, and residents will likely need to reserve times to limit the capacity while giving equitable access to everyone,” she says.

At Westlight, a luxury condo in the West End of Northwest Washington, the property manager instituted reservations-only access to the roof with cabanas available for working or gathering with family members, says Mei Mei Venners, director of sales and marketing for EastBanc, developers of Westlight condo and the Residences at Eastern Market in Washington.

“The reservations are for an hour or two and then the staff can immediately rearrange the furniture and clean it between uses,” says Venners. “This provides safety and exclusivity and keeps control over the space by the management team.”

Concierge services at luxury buildings such as the Lauren were able to control the front door remotely and provide help for residents, such as ordering groceries and supplying masks, hand sanitizer and other difficult-to-find items, says Mann.

“In the future, people will think about what mattered to them at this time, and I think many will appreciate the comfort they experienced having someone at the front desk who was looking out for them at all times,” says Mann.

The way buildings are sold and leased changed as soon as the pandemic hit. The use of virtual sales appointments and tours accelerated. Many buyers of new construction purchase homes from a floor plan and renderings, so virtual tours of models add another level of information.

“We transitioned from selling about two-thirds of condos in person and one-third through virtual tours to the opposite, with two-thirds of buyers purchasing just from a virtual tour,” says Mann. “The other one-third of buyers came to see models by appointment, and we followed strict social distancing and cleaning protocols.”

The use of virtual tours for sales is expected to accelerate even as social distancing guidelines are lifted. In addition, many buildings offer self-guided tours into a model with keyless entry, says Campbell.

Future innovations, designs
New condos and apartments are typically designed and planned two to four years in advance, says Mann, so it will take time before building floor plans and features that reflect lessons learned during the pandemic.

“We’re seeing a spike in sales of units with a den today, so if this continues we may add more dens in buildings where we can adjust the mix of unit sizes,” says Mann.

Raley says he anticipates that people will want a little more space such as a den or extra bedroom, but thinks a bigger priority will be a balcony or patio, especially one with a view.

Many apartment and condo builders invested money into roof decks with pools, grilling stations and lounge areas to compensate for the lack of private outdoor space and for smaller units. Mann says the emphasis may shift in favor of private balconies. However, balconies can be an expensive item to add to a building.

“Going forward, I think developers and managers will look for ways to bifurcate their open space for smaller groups rather than large congregations of residents,” says Brandon Wright, a managing director for Crescent Communities. “There are creative ways to do that with landscaping.”

In addition, Wright says he thinks developers may try to add more elevators to reduce the number of people in each one, although that could be extremely expensive. Another option, he says, may be more open stairs to the second and third floors so residents on those levels walk instead of taking the elevator.

Co-working spaces may also adapt, with developers creating individualized space with glass partitions and furniture, says Wright.

“Pre-covid, developers were going in the direction of maximizing common areas for working from home, but that may shift a little in favor of providing some smaller spaces for individuals as well as a big table where people can meet,” says Raley.

Another anticipated trend is a focus on buildings’ systems and materials that could create a healthier environment.

“Anthony Lanier [founder of EastBanc] wants people to live in the city but not hear it or smell it,” says Venners. “The air filtration in the Westlight is already superior to most buildings, with venting from every corridor and common space as well as from each unit to keep the air fresher throughout the building. Each unit has an air filtration system for healthier air.”

Construction has yet to begin at the Marlow, a new building planned for downtown Columbia by the Howard Hughes Corp., which means that the company can incorporate some of the lessons from the pandemic into the structure.

“We’re exploring new air filtration systems to see if we can increase air quality and looking into UV lighting strategies to kill germs,” says Fitchitt. “We plan to use antibacterial surfaces such as copper on high-touch areas and plan to create a touchless environment from the front door to the elevator and amenity spaces.”

An immediate option, says Fitchitt, is a “covid claw” tool to grab door handles and touch elevator buttons, but high-tech choices such as a key fob to swipe for the elevator are likely to be installed in new buildings.

“The emphasis on health and wellness has been an ongoing trend, one we thought would be mostly for luxury buildings since these features add to the cost of building,” says Mann. “Now this is something everyone will expect and gravitate toward to feel safer.”

Automated parking perk

When Anuja Sonalker, founder of Steer Tech, an automated valet parking system, in Annapolis Junction, Md., started working on her self-parking app, she never anticipated the value that it might have during a pandemic.

“The system is convenient so drivers can pull up to their home, office, a mall, an airport, anywhere that it’s allowed, and their car will park itself automatically,” says Sonalker.

The benefit that resonates in the current environment is that the automated system eliminates the typical valet parking scenario when someone enters your car to park it and return it to you. In addition, avoiding a parking garage may eliminate the need to touch additional surfaces such as elevator buttons and doors.

Known as Steer, the system can be added to most vehicles that have been built since 2014 and requires a special camera, a module for the car and a smartphone app. Steer is available for $1,200 for unlimited access for consumers and may eventually be installed in some new cars.

“We’re working with Steer to explore the use of driverless technology in the parking lot of our next building, the Marlow,” says Greg Fitchitt, president of the Howard Hughes Corp., developer of the Juniper apartments in the Merriweather District of downtown Columbia, Md. “Residents will be able to get out of their cars in the lobby and text the car to come back when they need it without anyone else touching the car.”

Read the original article on The Washington Post here.