About two years ago, development firm SB-Urban and its partners Rooney Properties burst onto the District’s real estate scene with a new idea: small, furnished studio apartments set in bustling, historic neighborhoods. They envisioned buildings with robust shared spaces, where residents interact daily in communal living rooms, eat together in shared dining rooms and bond over art exhibits and speaker series.
The firms have been slowly acquiring properties to complete their vision; in 2013, they bought the Latham Hotel building in Georgetown, and in 2014, they snapped up Dupont Circle’s Patterson Mansion.
In late March, the firm’s most recent proposal, a 120-unit project in Shaw’s Blagden Alley, was approved by the Historic Preservation Review Board. In February, the Board of Zoning Adjustment approved the project, which generated attention for its lack of parking.
Now the firms are clear to move forward with construction. All three projects are more than a year away from completion, said SB-Urban founder Frank Saul. The Patterson Mansion will be completed first.
Saul spoke with The Washington Post about his vision for the apartment buildings and the creative social engineering that sets them apart from the alternatives.
Q: Your company focuses on developing apartment buildings with small, furnished studios set in historic neighborhoods. How did you zero on in this particular model?
A: We are responding to what we think is a growing and strong secular trend, which everyone knows about: People are moving back into the city.
In the case of our renter, sometimes they are moving for a new job, or they need a pied-à-terre, or they know they are only going to be in town for a year or two, because they are working in the [Obama] Administration or with a think tank or the World Bank.
There are obviously a lot of options for them, but what’s missing is the option to rent a furnished studio in a building with a socially active environment, where you’re going to meet people and be engaged in the community.
Our customer comes to town with a backpack, a laptop and a credit card. They walk to work, and they may not actually be single, but they are living a single lifestyle while they are here. We want to generate a socially conducive living room for this particular client.
Q: Is there a historical precedent for this, or is it an original idea?
A: In many ways, this is historical, and in many ways it’s original. We have not seen anyone do what we’re doing, which is orienting all the shared living space around the heart of the community, so you come into the lobby and you’re in the space. You can’t get to your apartment without going through the shared living space.
Historically, if you go back in time 100 or 200 years, there were lots of boarding houses, social clubs, etc., in London and Paris and New York, where young people would move into the city, and that’s where they would live before they get themselves established.
So there’s certainly a historical precedent, but it’s really different than what we’re doing today.
Q: What are the shared living spaces like?
A: First, there is a place to plop down and pull out your laptop after work: a hang-out space. We’re going to have liquor licenses for the residents only.
Then, we’re going to have social programming.
We’ll have an art program where we have rotating exhibits and will have different types of artists come in to give talks. Every couple weeks, we’ll have folks from think tanks or the press coming in to give a talk. In Dupont Circle, for example, you have a big embassy and think-tank crowd. We’ll have researchers come in and give a talk on, maybe, economics or the Middle East or an election in Venezuela — that type of stuff. Then there might be a music night, or a specialty night with a chef from around the corner. There’ll be a special event going on on a fairly regular basis.
Q: Are some of these events going to be open to the community?
A: They’ll be for residents and their guests.
Q: This reminds me of the co-housing model, but that’s ownership based. Who organizes the social programming for your apartments?
A: We will have a fairly senior staff person who is in charge of creating, running and managing an active program for our folks.
Q: Your projects don’t offer parking. Do you have bike amenities?
A: We have lots of bike stuff: Two of the three buildings have bike shops, we have lots of bike storage, and a Capital Bikeshare membership comes with the lease, as well as a Zipcar membership.
One of the things we’re doing is not generating traffic in the city. Our customer is traveling light.
Q: Can you tell me about the units themselves?
A: We’re trending toward a small-ish studio. They vary, but they average around 360 to 375 square feet.
They’ll all have small kitchens. We’re in locations where folks will be eating out six or seven nights a week, and so we don’t think they’re going to cook a lot. All three buildings also have different shared kitchen and dining areas. There are smaller ones that can be rented out, and larger ones that are for the whole community.
There are also a built-in washer/dryers, furnishings, and very cool bathrooms.
Some will have Murphy beds, but they’re large and pretty cool.
Q: Who is your renter? Is this a really young renter, or someone who is more established and has a little more money to spend?
A: This is clearly someone who is more established. These folks have substantial professional jobs. It’s not in an elite arena, but it’s not “micro-studios.”
Q: So it’s not a grad student or intern.
A: No. But if you’re a new law associate, you’d be perfect.
Q: Do you have any more projects coming up?
A: No, we have our hands full right now.
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Shilpi Malinowski is a freelance writer.