In the past 15 years, multifamily living has surged in popularity. This is especially true in downtown and city neighborhoods, in locations near light rail, and in new suburban town centers that combine residential, office, and retail in walkable environments.

Energy concerns may advance this trend toward infill as more people become conscious of the potential utility and transportation savings of urban apartments, condos, and townhomes. Even national single-family home builders are building multifamily homes in mixed-use environments.

David Clark
David Clark

Yet we still live in the land of the American Dream, where the ideal for many remains a single-family house with a yard. To ensure a continued demand for multifamily homes, we in the industry must build real places, not just "housing units," placing density in the context of well-designed, livable neighborhoods. To become treasured places that succeed over time, mixed-use, multifamily (and multi-story) residential neighborhoods need shops, services, parks, recreation, and a safe, walkable public environment.

Such results pay off for developers as well as residents. You cannot oversell the benefits of an attractive, complete urban environment outside your door.

But accomplishing this, as many know, is easier said than done. What do private developers need to do to make livable projects not only "pencil out," but gain and sustain value over time? To me, two tasks rise to the top of the list: connecting with the community and creating a wonderful property.

Group Effort

Building livable density is truly a community effort. A multifamily developer can propose a great building, but they need partners to create mixed-use zoning, retail services, pedestrian-oriented streets, public transit, and parks and greenways.

This is a complex, collaborative and ultimately political process. It may involve educating public officials about mixed-use zoning, working with neighborhoods concerned about density, and assembling public and private funds to build your project and associated public amenities.

Some aspects may not be as difficult as you expect. Many communities do lack the zoning and the experience to guide creation of a complex multi-use environment. But leaders may have seen such developments happen elsewhere and, as a result, have the interest and the political will to support such a project in their city or neighborhood.

Eric Figge (Courtesy of Forest City Residential West)
Eric Figge (Courtesy of Forest City Residential West)

Communities interested in mixed-use can begin by making an inventory of vacant and underutilized land. This information becomes the basis for rezoning commercial and industrial lands as mixed-use, including residential. Such areas can be distinguished with neighborhood master plans and special "overlay" zones that do not affect the overall zoning of the city.

This strategy has several benefits. It recycles existing streets, utilities, and other infrastructure to support new development. Well-defined overlay zones also don't impinge on existing residential neighborhoods and are less likely to stir opposition to development proposals.

Finally, the private and public sectors can collaborate to create such public amenities as parks, attractive streetscapes, and structured parking.

Beyond these general guidelines, you may find yourself sponsoring a community "visioning" process, sitting on the parks board, or collaborating with a retail developer to create ground-floor shops to serve your residents.

For many developers looking for short-term profits, this is a new and different business model. But these strategies should be relatively easy to implement for multifamily developers accustomed to managing and improving their product over time to accrue value.

Design Matters

More so than any other building type, multifamily buildings need exceptional architectural design. This is not just about "star" architecture, like Santiago Calatrava or Frank Gehry designing apartment towers in Chicago or New York. I'm talking about ensuring each apartment has views, fresh air, sound mitigation against neighbor noise and traffic, privacy, and great floor plans. Excellent design is always thoughtful and considerate of people who use the building.

Design also should ensure that urban residents enjoy the equivalent of the suburban backyard. To increase livability, multifamily buildings can incorporate private and semi-private outdoor spaces including balconies, terraces, roof gardens, and courtyards, and take full advantage of views. Views are emotional open space, space which conveys a feeling of openness without the ability to set foot on it. MetLofts, a new rental property in downtown Los Angeles, includes a beautifully landscaped courtyard where neighbors can gather, host a social event, or simply have a barbeque, all with a wonderful view of the city. Virtually all of the units benefit from the emotional open space of such views, which outweigh the postage-stamp backyard so common in suburbia these days.

Urban neighborhoods also need high-quality urban parks. This is undeniably a challenge; after all, urban neighborhoods by definition have scarce, expensive land. But there are solutions. California, under a 1965 law known as the Quimby Act, has pioneered an urban parks funding mechanism. This allows the city of Los Angeles to link fees from condominium sales to create revenues to purchase downtown land for new parks. With more than 9,000 condos planned in the next five years, the city's park acquisition and development fund will grow to exceed $50 million. In other terms, a single 200-unit condo building will generate $1 million from Quimby Act provisions to be used for parks and recreation.

Another promising source of park funds in California is the potential sale of surplus, city-owned parcels, with the revenues earmarked for purchasing land for new downtown parks. These funds will be used to create public, rather than private, open space that will benefit the entire community.

Greg Vilkin
Greg Vilkin

Obviously, multifamily living will appeal to an even a wider variety of residents when they don't have to sacrifice basics like access to parks and green space. They can enjoy community events, sports, and owning pets, all while living in a denser urban environment. Livability encourages them to stay, while attracting more new residents. These elements form the foundation of sustainable neighborhoods that mature and improve over generations.

–Greg Vilkin is president of Forest City Residential West and Forest City Stapleton, divisions of Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises.