Outdoor space, whether communal or private to individual units, has always been at the top of the most-desired amenities list for condominium and co-op purchasers. A small terrace or balcony can add hours of quiet enjoyment to apartment living - not to mention thousands of dollars to the value of a given unit. Recent sales data suggests that apartments with private exterior space, and buildings with common areas enabling residents to enjoy safe outdoor access during the COVID-19 pandemic are selling more quickly and at higher prices than comparable units without those features. In many markets, single-family homes are selling at record speed - and for record prices. Even homes with in-ground pools - often considered ‘white elephants’ in the Before Times, thanks to the maintenance and upkeep they require - are selling at a huge premium.
CooperatorNews spoke to one suburban Stamford, Connecticut couple who prefer to remain anonymous about their selling experience. They report that only two years ago, their four-bedroom mid-1970s home with an in-ground pool and jacuzzi was ‘unsellable’ at a price acceptable to them. Fast-forward to this past November, when it sold - for more than their asking price and with multiple bids - in one weekend.
Condominium and cooperative communities have a lot to consider when it comes to leveraging exterior amenities into a competitive sales advantage. Clearly, buildings that don’t feature individual terraces and balconies can’t really rebuild their facades to add them. But there are other options available to them to provide a safe, monitored, exterior space for residents to access in good weather. There are many options, varying depending on building type. High-rise buildings have different options from more horizontal communities. As always though, necessity is the mother of invention, and boards and communities must be inventive when working around space constraints, zoning and building regulations, and budgetary limitations.
Alan Gaynor is an architect and a principal of Boddewyn Gaynor Architects based in New York City. They have completed projects all over the metropolitan area, including several in New Jersey. “[Outdoor space] has become very important since the beginning of the pandemic,” he says. “Anyone designing a building today who is not including outdoor space is crazy. It will affect salability. Buyers are increasingly looking for it. When I originally bought my apartment, I wanted outdoor space but couldn’t afford it. Now it’s more important than ever. If you can’t have private outdoor space such as a terrace or balcony, outdoor community space is nice to have. We now have a roof garden in our building. Truthfully, it’s not much of a garden, but it’s there and really valuable now.”
Gaynor points out that there are many possible places for a co-op or condominium community to establish usable outdoor space, but the roof is usually the first choice. While an expensive and sometimes technically difficult undertaking, roof decks provide residents with what might be the best option. There’s likely to be more direct sunlight for longer periods of the day than in a courtyard or quadrangle at ground level, and it’s likely to be larger and can hold more people at once, especially when factoring in the social distancing requirements likely to be with us for some time.
Another option for some properties is to use or repurpose one of those courtyards, alleys, or quads. This may not be feasible with all such underused space, but for many it is, if well considered and well executed. “Greenery is always appreciated by everyone,” says Gaynor. “A garden or courtyard or patio...must have an amalgam of both greenery and paved spaces. There should be space for benches and tables. The ability to eat one’s lunch outside, weather permitting, is a great thing. If the space you are considering using is on the ground floor, you can dig up the earth under the concrete now covering it to create plant beds. If you can’t, there are potted plants - which are typically used on roof decks today - though they require more intensive care. You may even have more than one area that can be designated for different segments of the community. Perhaps one is for families with children, while another is designated as a quiet area.”
Horizontal communities such as townhouses, garden-style apartments, and even HOAs composed of single-family homes can increase their ‘curb appeal’ by repurposing exterior areas as well. They can add paved walking paths for exclusive resident use, or convert a parking area into a playground (assuming they have sufficient parking or can create replacement parking elsewhere on the property, which, Gaynor points out, can be a very expensive proposition.)
Denise Becker, a regional manager with Corner Property Management in Springfield, New Jersey mentions an over-55 property where the residents are considering converting a tennis court to an outdoor seating area. While normally the arrival of spring would have residents eager to use the courts, local ordinances governing use during the pandemic - as well as liability and insurance concerns about any claims filed for COVID-19 transmission - board and community members alike are reluctant to use the space for tennis, at least for now. Converting the already-paved space into a seating area made sense for this particular community; it keeps the space in use, while keeping space between the people using it.
Now, or Later?
The simple truth is that while adding additional exterior spaces for community use may be a growing priority for urban properties, now may not be the time for suburban communities to do the same. Becker points out that the market for all types of dwellings - condos, co-ops, and single-family homes - is very strong in New Jersey. The movement of people from urban environments to suburban ones as a response to COVID-19 is well known, and listings don’t remain unsold for very long. That movement is likely to continue until the pandemic ebbs or ends, and it’s anyone’s guess what may happen afterward, in the longer term. As a result of this uncertainty, many suburban communities are putting plans for reuse or repurposing on hold - simply because they don’t view the projects as necessary to maintain or increase their market position.
Another consideration, Becker explains, is that even more than before, boards are being financially prudent. Many associations, corporations, and communities are experiencing - or worried about experiencing - cash flow problems due to residents themselves having pandemic-related financial issues. Simply stated, they don’t want to obligate themselves to new capital projects, even modest ones, until the economic picture has stabilized.
Kevin Dulio is president of Native Fields Landscaping in Jefferson Township, New Jersey. His clientele consists mostly of large HOAs, and Dulio says he’s had an increase in inquiries from the communities he works with for additional outdoor amenities. These include dog parks, walking paths and community gardens. He confirms Becker’s observations that communities are behaving very conservatively when it comes to spending money right now. “They’re interested in creating new outdoor spaces and amenities for their communities,” he says, “but they are concerned about undertaking new projects at this time. They’re asking questions, doing their due diligence.”
Dulio expects that communities will be moving towards increasing exterior community spaces in the future - so much so that he is developing a marketing program to tap into this market which he expects will grow as the economy stabilizes and improves.
The effects of COVID-19 have been and will continue to be many and myriad, and will continue to impact multifamily communities in unexpected ways. Condominium, co-op, and HOA boards must be vigilant to keep ahead of trends within their market to keep their properties competitive with new buildings and communities constructed after the arrival of the pandemic and with the needs of residents in a post-pandemic world in mind. Options are many, and may include the repurposing of un- or underused parts of their property to better serve their residents. What was once a place to store trash until collection may now become a beautiful Zen garden, where residents can find respite from the stress of the world around them.