Condo-monium: Demand is up for luxury units in the Washington area

September 27, 2013

Gabriel Ross, 35, and his husband, Sean Broderick, 40, had grown comfortable in their Cincinnati single-family home, which included a movie theater, wine cellar and second kitchen in 4,500 square feet of living space. When they relocated to Washington to accommodate Broderick’s career in government relations, they knew it would mean downsizing — but it turned out space was the only thing they had to give up.

At Archstone First + M, a 469-unit apartment building in the District’s up-and-coming NoMa neighborhood, their two-bedroom with den is less than a third the size of their previous home. But the apartment, which rents for a little more than $4,000 a month, came with myriad amenities: a rooftop featuring a heated pool and views of the Washington Monument, plus a fitness center, bike maintenance facility, music practice rooms and demonstration kitchen. The couple has already entertained guests in the building’s movie theater and ultra-modern social space.

“It’s so unusual and different. The amenities are fantastic,” says Ross, who works in finance. “We just fell in love.”

Real estate is on the rise in Washington, aided by the region’s lower-than-average unemployment and higher-than-average economic growth. But it’s smaller, urban units, not suburban single-family homes, that are in demand. A recent report by RealEstate Business Intelligence and George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis found condo sales up nearly 16 percent over last year. Supply has been at record lows, but condos are making a comeback, with new listings up 17.5 percent over last year, according to RBI. Research group Delta Associates said in July that 2,300 condo units were scheduled to start construction in the region this year; more than 30,000 new rental apartments are expected within the next three years.

But smaller spaces don’t necessarily mean smaller prices. The luxury segment — i.e., homes in the top 10 percent of market sales with price tags of a minimum of $500,000 — is leading the national real estate recovery, says Laurie Moore-Moore of the Institute for Luxury Home Marketing. Locally, sales of condos with prices of more than $1 million are up 65 percent, according to Tom Anderson, president of Washington Fine Properties.

With height restrictions in the District and buyers here favoring more conservative aesthetics, local buildings don’t have the ultra-modern “wow factor” seen in flashier markets such as Miami and New York. But the high-end finishes and indulgent amenities common in those cities are now in demand in Washington, in apartments as well as condos. Newer buildings in older neighborhoods are offering fresh looks, with floor-to-ceiling windows and loft-style floor plans that are a far cry from the traditional rowhouse. Projects such as the soon-to-open CityCenterDC, which offers apartments and condos, are catering to demands for residential communities chock-full of restaurants and retail. And a flurry of construction along hot-spot corridors such as 14th Street NW (where one apartment building plans to offer a rooftop pool with adjacent bar and another will feature a Zen water garden) is adding to amenity-rich offerings.

Luxury buyers and renters are putting a premium on convenience, seeking out low-maintenance spaces with amenities that make their lives easier (such as valet parking and 24-hour concierge service) or more fun (outdoor fire pits, yoga rooms), and locations that offer access to shops, restaurants, transportation and other draws of city living. “It’s more than a place to live and a place to sleep — what you’re really buying is a lifestyle,” Anderson says. “People want to be where the action is.”

That’s what Alan Meltzer, chief executive of insurance and financial services company the Meltzer Group, is looking forward to with his newly purchased condo at Gaslight Square in Rosslyn. Now that their four kids have moved out, the 62-year-old Meltzer and his wife, Amy, are ready to downsize from their single-family home in Bethesda. The top-floor, two-story lofts at Gaslight come with private terraces wired for outdoor media, kitchens that include Wolf ranges and Sub-Zero refrigerators, and direct-access elevators (and typically a price tag of up to $1.5 million). Meltzer envisions walking to restaurants in Georgetown and Clarendon, and being able to travel more easily. “We have a place on [Cape Cod] and a boat down south, so it’s much easier to just lock the door and leave, rather than worrying about some dumb house,” he says.

Buyers like Meltzer are half of the equation, says Gaslight developer Jim Abdo (whose other projects include the Wooster and Mercer lofts next door to Gaslight, as well as Capitol Hill’s Bryan School Lofts, NoMa’s Landmark Lofts and the forthcoming Monroe Street Market residential and retail project in Brookland). “We get a lot of empty nesters that feel like they want to go back and relive a period of their lives when they were more tied into the urban core,” he says. “We’re [also] seeing a lot of tech-savvy, well-paid young folks. ... They’re highly educated, they’re well paid and they’re very discerning. “

Gaslight doesn’t offer a dramatic menu of specialty amenities, but Abdo has delivered the bright, natural light and airy feel that real estate agents and designers say buyers are clamoring for. Units featuring 19-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows feel much larger than square footage might suggest.

“It’s not so much the view people want, it’s the light,” says Washington interior designer Jeff Akseizer of Akseizer Design Group. He has found luxury clients are especially interested in making their spaces one-of-a-kind; his group even bought a mill a few years ago to accommodate demand for custom furniture and decor. His clients are also looking for high-tech design. His recent work on another Gaslight penthouse included a custom system that allows the resident to control pretty much everything through an iPhone, an iPad or touchscreen wall mounts: raising artwork to reveal the 80-inch flat-screen television, setting mood-specific lighting, adjusting the music pumped through hidden sonar speakers. Even the fish are fed and the plants watered through a preprogrammed system. Press a button upon departure, and once motion sensors detect you’ve left the premises, the lights and music go off and the system returns to its default settings.

Anderson of Washington Fine Properties sees that need for convenience as part of the culture driving more people to seek out apartments and condos in urban centers. “The Internet, phones, iPads — everything we want, we get at the push of a button. Fact of the matter is, we’re all looking for instant lifestyle, instant gratification,” he says. Wouldn’t it be better, he suggests, to exit your building and see a number of great restaurants right outside the door, rather than having to drive somewhere, or be able to stroll down the street to find arts, theater and shopping on a whim?

That idea of city living is fueling CityCenterDC, a nearly $1 billion, 10-acre mini-neighborhood on the site of the old convention center, which is set to feature condos and apartments, as well as office space, parks, parking garages, a hotel and a bevy of shops and restaurants. The 216 luxury condos, which range from $500,000 to $2.5 million or more, should be move-in ready next month. They’ll feature floor-to-ceiling windows, Molteni cabinetry and other high-end finishes.

Derek Chan, 48, who has been hunting for a condo for a few years, recently purchased a one-bedroom unit at CityCenterDC. Though he hasn’t moved in yet, Chan, senior vice president of business development for A3 Technology, is looking forward to changing the rhythm of his day-to-day life. He predicts CityCenterDC will offer “very similar living to the West Village in New York City, where you’re living right on top of stores and cafes.”

He had wanted the city location and to downsize from his four-bedroom single-family home in the Kentlands development in Gaithersburg, but found it challenging to find a one-bedroom in Washington that wasn’t tiny or uninspiring. He took the largest floor plan CityCenterDC offers (about 1,000 square feet) and opted for a courtyard view. Howard Riker, vice president of CityCenterDC developer Hines, says that desire for not-so-small condos has led others to purchase a two-bedroom unit and a one-bedroom unit, with the intention of combining them.

“People want a lot of space, just not as much as a house,” agrees Dan Riordan, president of residential development for Turnberry Associates. Arlington’s Turnberry Tower has been on the luxury scene since 2008, drawing in buyers with sleekly modern styling, direct elevator access, Miele appliances and balconies — an especially valuable feature in a 26-story building not burdened by the District’s height restrictions, allowing for sweeping views of the Potomac River, nearby Georgetown and the Washington Monument from the upper floors. Prices started at $700,000 and went as high as $7 million.

The appetite for high-end, turnkey living and contemporary architecture is much greater now than it was five years ago, Riordan says. But even with seven-figure condo sales, a growing list of premium amenities on offer, and wealthy buyers competing for units in an undersupplied market, he doesn’t think Washington’s luxury category will rival those in more glamorous U.S. cities.

“It’s never going to be Miami or New York,” says Riordan. “And that’s okay; it doesn’t have to be.”

Amanda McGrath is a former Post editor. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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