Reade Palmer wanted to meet his neighbors.
That's not unusual, except for one thing: Palmer lives in a downtown apartment building.
Palmer knows the stereotype of the typical urban apartment dweller: They shut their doors, turn on their TV sets and shut out their neighbors. They hit the downtown hot spots, coming back to their apartments only to sleep and eat. No one knows the folks living across the hall. People move in and out without ever saying more than good morning to the renter next door.
Palmer did not want to live that way. And he doesn't, thanks largely to the common areas in his building, the three-year-old Post Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington, named for Atlanta-based owner Post Properties.
"My lease was up in October and I decided to renew because I enjoy living here and taking advantage of the amenities. I could justify one more year before buying a home," Palmer said. "I've made a lot of friends here, friends that I go out and socialize with. The direct neighbor is someone I met and is now a friend."
For Palmer, the best common area is his building's rooftop pool. Sitting 15 floors up, the pool offers views of the Washington Monument, the Capitol and many other D.C. landmarks. It is also a place where residents gather to take a dip or cook a quick lunch on one of the barbecue grills dotting the rooftop deck.
"It's like a mini-vacation when I can't get out of the city," Palmer said. "And it's a great place to sit and talk to your neighbors in the summer." In colder weather, residents can also use a community room with a flat-screen television, fireplace and pool table; an eating area with complimentary continental breakfast served Mondays through Fridays; and a fitness center.
Building real communities in apartment buildings and condominium developments -- communities in which people recognize one another, know one another's names and become friends -- has long been a challenge for developers. Common spaces -- lounges, gardens, rooftop decks, fitness centers and even Wi-Fi-equipped cyber cafes -- are one way to address this issue. Although the concept of community may sound touchy-feely, there are business reasons for designing such spaces. Developers in hot markets, and the Washington area qualifies, must offer such amenities to keep up with the competition and protect their profits. Renters and condo dwellers, like those who purchase traditional single-family houses, are increasingly expecting more than just a decent unit in a clean and safe building.
"Building community into housing developments has become more than just a nice neighborhood feature," said James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a strategy and marketing firm in Belmont, Mass. "Some developers have realized that it's going to be a fundamental way to differentiate themselves from their competitors that will create a preference among consumers who are shopping for apartments or condos. That's worth money."
Developers agree. "The amenities used to be fairly modest, but that's changing. Now we're offering fitness centers, club rooms, game rooms," said Marc Fairbrother, vice president with the D.C. office of developer RTKL Associates, which runs several apartment buildings loaded with common areas. "Developers are catering to a younger, active adult lifestyle. It's something we have to do to keep people in place for as long as possible."
Dev Patnaik, a professor at Stanford University and founder of the research firm Jump Associates, has studied the best ways to create common areas in residential developments that actually achieve the goal of fostering a sense of community among residents. And after studying the issue, he said, he has discovered that most developers fail in this mission.
To see this, Patnaik said, just walk into the community rooms or clubhouse rooms common in many new multifamily developments. You will see televisions, pool tables, fireplaces, even catering kitchens. The odds are good, though, that you will not see many people.
"Go in on a Saturday afternoon. Maybe the TV is on, but nothing else is going on," Patnaik said. "That's not inviting. That doesn't foster a sense of community. Nobody wants to spend time in a ghost town. Developers don't often create spaces where people want to spend any time. People don't congregate just for the sake of congregating. They do things because they have to. That's what developers have to remember and have to tap into when adding common areas."
The best way to foster community spirit in a multifamily development is to create accidental communities, Patnaik said. Such communities spring up naturally when like-minded people gather in an area that offers activities that they either like to do or have to do.
A good example are suburban condominium or apartment developments that thread safe running paths through their grounds. Residents who enjoy jogging are likely to meet neighbors with the same interest. Condo developments alongside golf courses naturally attract fans of the sport, who can congregate in the clubhouses they often offer.
This is just the beginning. Patnaik has studied a loft development in San Francisco that, for whatever reason, has become popular among artists. The developers of the loft put a potter's wheel in the basement, creating a space where residents are inclined to gather. A generic clubhouse with TVs and pool tables probably would not have proven as successful in gathering crowds, Patnaik said.
The key, Patnaik said, is for developers and owners to remember exactly who their customers are.
Buildings filled with young families might provide onsite daycare centers as a way to build a sense of community. This way, parents can meet other parents of young children. Fitness centers are also a draw for renters. Eventually, residents who work out at the same times day after day may create running groups or other fitness-based clubs.
"There is a natural human desire to be around people who are looking for the same things that you are looking for," Patnaik said.
Don't forget the power of four-legged friends, either. Pet owners will naturally congregate with other pet owners.
At the Avalon at Cameron Court, a community of townhouses and apartments in Alexandria, resident pet owners join together each year for a free doggie swim. The event takes place in the project's pool, one day after the pool officially closes for the season. The community also has its own dog walk where pet owners naturally congregate.
"The dog swim is a huge hit," said Dirk Herman, chief marketing officer for Alexandria-based AvalonBay Communities. "People with dogs raved about it. Even better, they got to know one another."
The dog walk and pooch swim are not the only ways in which AvalonBay works to build community in its multifamily projects, Herman said.
At all the company's complexes, including many scattered across the D.C. area, developers include workout facilities and resident lounges. Arlington Square, an Avalon apartment community in Arlington, features not only a workout room and coffee center, but also a business center and conference room. These two latter features are important, Herman said, because more residents work either part- or full-time from home offices. When they gather to send faxes or hold brief meetings in the business center, they also spend a few moments chatting about their careers and how often they work from home.
Residents may then discover they are in similar fields. This builds what Patnaik referred to as an accidental community.
Arlington Square boasts indoor basketball courts, too, and a busy pool. Building managers schedule play dates for parents with young children, exercise classes, wine-and-cheese tastings and other activities.
"What's more important than the facilities themselves are the things you do in those facilities," Herman said. "Guests encounter each other in workout facilities. They mingle at the pool. And then there are the events. We have trick or treating here on Halloween. At least once a quarter we try some sort of event to get people interacting with one another."
Finding the right mix takes some study. AvalonBay officials have discovered, for example, that some of their communities are appealing more these days to empty-nesters. In these communities, managers have provided space for round game tables so residents can gather to play cards and board games.
"That is different than what we did 10 years ago," Herman said.
The developers at Reston-based Waterford Development take a similar approach. The company's Palladium in McLean, a condominium development, features an outdoor green area, a sort of town square complete with a sculpture and water fountain. The space, said Niki Piersall, who until recently worked as director of sales and marketing for Waterford, has proven to be a natural gathering place for residents. Beginning this spring, the Palladium will host two community events, such as concerts and art exhibitions, every month.
Again, Waterford officials researched their market before deciding to make the garden the Palladium's signature common area. Buyers here are sophisticated, and many are well-to-do empty-nesters, Piersall said. That makes sense; the Palladium's higher-priced units sell for more than $1 million. These residents, then, are more likely to spend time together in a civic garden than in a great room with blaring flat-screen televisions. The project has plenty of elaborate indoor common spaces, too, although on one recent weekday afternoon, they were not getting much use from residents.
Jefferson at Congressional Village, a JPI Properties apartment community in Rockville, attracts a variety of renters, from residents just out of college to empty-nesters. The apartments sit just two blocks from a Metro station and across the street from a concentration of stores on Rockville Pike. The complex, then, does not attract the traditional suburban buyer who must rely on a car to get around.
To serve this population, Jefferson offers an on-site pub, fitness center, business center and, perhaps most important, a cyber cafe equipped for Wi-Fi access. The cafe is busy, said Patty Holt, regional property manager for JPI. This isn't a surprise, considering that many of the building's younger residents need to log on often for their jobs and would rather do so in a public setting. The Wi-Fi access brings computer-savvy residents together, Holt said.
In an effort to find the right mix of community spaces, JPI not only conducts surveys of residents at its own projects, but also interviews renters and buyers at other multifamily projects to find out what amenities and common areas they prefer, Holt said.
What JPI has discovered, Holt said, is that certain common areas work better in suburban settings while others are preferable in urban settings. Conference rooms and business centers are important in the city, Holt said, while swimming pools with extensive landscaping are still top draws in suburban projects.
"You have to offer these spaces," Holt said. "Our competitors are offering these amenities. Clients will go with them if we don't do the same. Residents are demanding more. The rents in the D.C. market are higher than they are in other parts of the country. Residents are looking for all the bells and whistles."
Developers do admit that no matter how much money they pour into glittering fitness centers, sparkling pools and meticulously landscaped rooftop gardens, they can never force residents to socialize. They can never, as Patnaik says, force-feed a sense of community to busy apartment dwellers and condo buyers.
The common areas, though, do provide at least the opportunity for community building, said Tricia Carlson, group vice president of Post Properties. At Post Massachusetts Avenue, for instance, the free continental breakfast offered to residents on weekdays has inspired many to sit and chat before dashing off to work, Carlson said. That provides at least a glimmer of a neighborhood.
"The common areas give residents an opportunity to speak to each other, to get to know one another," Carlson said. "Some develop relationships. Some don't. It really depends on the individual."