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Wednesday feature: Designing better apartments

In the clunky world that is the development industry, good ideas frequently get ruined. Garden suburbs? Sure, they're charming when well-designed. But remove the attractive homes, tree-lined streets and parks and you get monotonous, ugly suburbs for all. Apartments in tall buildings, so you can get a view of the city? Sure, until you have streets that are canyons and unlivable on the ground. 

The latest real estate phenomenon: urban apartment complexes. Last week, Rob Steuteville wrote about the need for the surging urban apartment industry to do a better job at design:

As the multifamily industry strides forward, challenges arise. Some developers have mastered the craft of building in an urban place and using active frontages. Others are merely plunking down buildings with little change in design from those that previously fronted parking lots.

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Developers of multifamily buildings have taken the first, big, step by recognizing that urban place outside the building adds to quality of life and value. Achieving true sense of place is not that difficult. Better codes will reward developers that are now seeking urban locations for improving their urban manners.

Better codes are certainly needed, but so are better designs. Even a really good code won't prevent bad buildings. To put it bluntly: developers and designers need to do better. A lot better. 

Why does this matter? Shouldn't we be happy that developers are building new urban apartments and people are moving in? Yes, but also no. How well something is done matters. It matters especially in development because even a bad building is likely to stick around for at least 20-30 years, and often much longer.

But most importantly, how well these buildings are done will impact the larger economic success of cities. The goal is to create long-term value, not just short-term. When done right, these urban apartments can actually get people out walking and biking more and reduce the need for parking (a big deal for developers). When buildings and streets are beautiful, people care more for them and stick around longer. Longer tenancy and lower turnover is a recipe for financial success for apartment owners.

Each project either adds to a city's overall success or weakens it. A well-done building creates customers for neighborhood shops while adding to an area's overall attractiveness. An insular, average apartment complex only adds numerical value to a neighborhood since it fails to actually get people out on the streets. People come to cities for sociability and variety in daily experience. If those aren't provided for, people will vote with their feet and move on to another place. It's why "Appealing to the social animal" is item number one in my recipe for successful walkable communities.

So, with that all said, how about some examples? I will only use streets and buildings that are residential-only as examples. That's because mixed-use buildings can't happen everywhere, and frankly they're easier to do. Or at least, easier to do in a B grade fashion.

Grades are noted below.

First, from Omaha. These new apartments below are part of the Aksarben Village redevelopment. While the mixed-use portions of the project are quite good, the apartments leave a lot to be desired. Laypeople may want to grade these well, since they're new and have a few attractive features. But in reality this is a C-. We are frankly so accustomed to streets that are D's and F's that our bar is set very low. Notice the lack of entries from the sidewalk and the setbacks from the street (which serve no useful purpose). These are very common features in a lot of new urban apartments that fall short. The parking garage across the street can be forgiven since it will be hidden by a future building.

Here are some examples of older large apartment buildings also in Omaha, that do a much better job. Let's call them a B. Why only a B? Stay tuned.

How about another new development, this time in Florida? This is from Baldwin Park in Orlando. Let's give these a solid A-/B+. Notice how they have entries on the street and active engagement of the sidewalk. The buildings are still quite simple and made of affordable materials.

Another new development - this time it's Celebration, also outside of Orlando. At first glance, you might be inclined to say these are really good. But look closer, and you'll see what these really rate a C+. Stylistically they're fine, and they do engage the street somewhat. But these are really just typical garden apartment buildings in a slight disguise. The units don't have entries off of the street, and everything orients to the passageways and back. A few modest changes could have taken these from a C+ to a solid B with almost no additional expense.

What does an A look like? Here are a handful of examples. Note the quality of building, the doors and active engagement of the street and everything is scaled to humans. Yes, these are all older examples. But we have to have standards to strive for, and frankly our best examples are nearly all from more than  70 or 80 years ago. There's no reason we can't do as well today - it simply takes wanting to do it.


And, just for fun, an F!

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