Luxury Condos: The Next Big Thing in Multi-Family Housing

Aug. 1, 2007

The demand for high-quality multi-family housing projects continues to increase as affluent buyers insist on lavishness and comfort

Once upon a time, the American dream meant a big house with a white picket fence and a sprawling, green lawn. Today, we find that many homeowners don't want to deal with the maintenance of repainting the white fence and cutting and fertilizing the green lawn. They also want to ditch the long work commute and have more accessible entertainment than the annual neighborhood block party.

The type of affluent buyers that used to move out to the suburbs are now reversing that trend by moving back into the city and finding luxury, stunning views, and the cachet of being a new urbanite. Empty nesters, young professionals, and those in between are drawn to the energy and convenience that urban high-rise living has to offer.

The resurgence of this type of downtown living has captured the attention of city planners, downtown neighborhood associations, and others passionate about keeping the integrity of historic central business districts (CBDs), waterfront areas, or emerging growth neighborhoods. The key to success is to combine the interests of the community and the individual buyer to create developments that offer high-end, amenity-rich living and marquee buildings that will garner community respect for generations to come.

Designing with the Community in Mind
As research from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2004 survey indicates, the number of people migrating to urban centers is on the rise. In 2003, nearly 25 percent, or 72 million, of America's 300 million people lived in the country's 200 largest cities, an increase of almost 1.65 million from 2000. Research also shows that several major U.S. metropolitan cities rank within the world's top 50 cities offering the best quality of life, including Honolulu; San Francisco; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Portland, OR; New York City; and Seattle.

With an increase in the number of people moving to these desirable urban locations, the demand for high-quality residential projects continues to increase. As developers consider entering a new market to meet this demand, it is important that they take the time to fully understand the community interests and ensure that their project fits in with the overall community aesthetic.

Cities today are looking for projects that complement the downtown skyline, enhance the architectural design, and become entrenched in the community. Further, city officials want projects that incorporate sustainable elements, are built to high safety standards, and make their city a more desirable place to live.

The 27-story Grant Park development, the first of Minneapolis' two high-rise condominium developments in more than 20 years, set the stage for the way high-rise luxury condominium projects that enhance the surrounding community projects are developed. Strategically located in the southeast quadrant of downtown Minneapolis among a number of skyscrapers, Grant Park is designed to mold with the historic architecture of Minneapolis. With its precast concrete panels that resemble brick, Grant Park mirrors many of the older structures throughout the neighborhood. The building also features an external lighting system, making it a prominent figure in the nighttime skyline.

The Carlyle is the second high-rise condominium development in downtown Minneapolis, recently completed and one of the Midwest's tallest condominium towers at 39 floors. It was developed within Minneapolis' CBD in one of the city's most historic neighborhoods. To ensure that the building fit within the context of the historic district, the lower portions of the building were designed to feature laid-in-place brick exterior and window-like openings in the parking garage area, as well as a first-floor storefront complete with awnings to give it the charm existing in nearby early 20th-century buildings.

Another successful high-rise development, Parkshore Plaza on Beach Drive, located in downtown St. Petersburg, FL, sits within a city designed and built a century ago to attract tourists. Strategically situated to overlook the city's bay waters, Parkshore Plaza was designed with architecture that reflects the style of the surrounding pedestrian village. Additionally, the project includes ground-level retail shops and a restaurant fitting into the city's contemporary setting for dining and entertainment.

In some cases, dividing a condo development into two towers instead of one can fit in well with a downtown landscape. Good examples of this are the Scottsdale Waterfront Residences in Scottsdale, AZ, and The Pinnacle at City Park South in Denver. By dividing Scottsdale Waterfront Residences' 198 units between two 13-story towers, the project better matches the overall look and feel of the rapidly growing downtown Scottsdale. In Denver, The Pinnacle features two 20-plus-story towers nestled into an ideal location with views of the Rocky Mountains.

Designing for Luxury
Today's definition of luxury is different than it was a decade ago, and it means different things to different people. Luxury isn't just about penthouse suites and butlers - it's about high-quality, in-unit amenities; unique shared spaces; beautiful views; extensive services; and proximity to trendy shops and restaurants.

For example, The Plaza-Irvine, located in Irvine, CA, contains 202 units, most of which are single-story residences with balconies and feature entry foyers, floor-to-ceiling windows, 9-foot ceilings, and natural stone flooring. The residences are contained in two 15-story towers, each with a lobby that includes a reception desk, guest seating, a fireplace, and a conference room. The top level of each tower features eight 2-story penthouse residences. Additionally, The Plaza-Irvine offers residents a number of convenient services that include arrangements for laundry and dry-cleaning service with pick-up and delivery, limousine service, dinner reservations, catering, special-events tickets, grocery shopping and delivery, housekeeping and maintenance, plant care, and auto detailing.

A unique aspect of The Plaza-Irvine is The Terrace - nearly 1 acre of amenities that include a main pool with separate spas, a lap pool, a fitness center, locker rooms, a sun deck, cabanas with landscaped barbecues and fireplaces, and the Club Room, which includes a caterer's kitchen and wet bar.

Similar amenities can be found in The Carlyle, which offers the convenience of close proximity to Minneapolis' parks, jogging, and biking paths; shopping and entertainment venues; the theatre, warehouse, and riverfront districts; downtown skyways; and the newly redeveloped Minneapolis Central Library and Guthrie Theatre. With its landscaped terrace featuring a garden arbor, an outdoor hot tub, a lap pool, a kitchen, and an open-air fireplace, The Carlyle presents residents with a number of options for outdoor entertaining. Indoor amenities include a concierge; a professionally equipped fitness center complete with televisions built into exercise equipment; an aerobic/Pilates/yoga studio; massage, tanning, and steam rooms; a salon and spa for manicures, pedicures, and facials; a fully equipped business center and conference room; a Great Room with working kitchen and fireplace for parties; and a wine-tasting room for gatherings.

Designing for Safety and Sustainability
Great care should be taken in designing and constructing luxury condominiums that not only offer numerous amenities in desirable locations, but also maintain design and construction elements that take into consideration safety and sustainability.

Currently under construction, Seattle's Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue is an example of a project that incorporates a number of unique design elements. Given Seattle's location in a seismic 3 zone, it is rare to find a 39-story high-rise building that features floor-to-ceiling glass. Fifteen Twenty-One is designed to offer just that: a floor-to-ceiling view of Puget Sound over the Pike Place Market. While most tall glass buildings located in seismically active zones use concrete beams around the outer shell to protect against seismic activity, Fifteen Twenty-One contains a steel-reinforced concrete shear core designed to twist and turn like a spine, which allows the floor-to-ceiling glass.

Before construction of Parkshore Plaza began in hurricane-prone southern Florida, a wind tunnel study was conducted to assess the safety and durability of the structure's design. The study consisted of a small-scale replica of the high-rise building placed in the context of downtown St. Petersburg, FL. Dozens of tiny sensors were embedded into the model, and the model was placed in a wind tunnel to simulate the effects of hurricane-force winds. The results of the test were used to enhance the design, including adding extra shear walls into the structure to work to accommodate the twisting and pushing of the building.

Today, with concerns about global warming and green living on the rise, developers are scrambling to become front runners in sustainable development. Projects incorporating sustainable elements are increasingly desirable to cities that seek to be the leaders in green innovation and advancement.   

Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue is Seattle's first multi-family development to be built to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED® Silver status under the new zoning ordinance that allows for an additional 160 feet of height. Sustainable elements planned for the project include the reduction of irrigation by 50 percent; the prevention of ozone depletion by using no HCFCs or halon; diverting more than 75 percent of construction waste from landfills; ensuring that 20 percent or more of all materials are locally manufactured; selecting low-emitting materials for adhesives, sealants, paint, and carpet; providing ENERGY STAR® appliances in each unit; and including a dedicated bike storage room for 74 bicycles. Additionally, the building is planned to purchase green power for its first 2 years.

Dave Menke is vice president of real estate at Minneapolis-based The Opus Group (

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