WaterColor is thought of as one of the most successful recent housing developments in Florida's panhandle. The heart of the community, though, is more than 120 units of multifamily housing in a mixed-use town center that is punctuated by a park.

Award-winning Cerulean Park centers on a narrow canal that stretches from a boathouse area at Western Lake past residences, manicured public lawns, native plantings, a bike path, and benches as it leads to the community retail center and points to Gulf beaches at the other end of a long boardwalk. Surrounded by buildings with two or three floors of condominiums above ground-floor retail and office spaces, the park's terminus features a widened space that acts as the grounds for food festivals, retail fairs, and other local gatherings.

At WaterColor in Northwest Florida, multifamily buildings connect to the larger community through landscaping, much of which relies on native plants.

At WaterColor in Northwest Florida, multifamily buildings connect to the larger community through landscaping, much of which relies on native plants.

Seemingly simple, the actual complexity of this linear park in the Santa Rosa, Fla., development communicates the increasing demands of landscaping at today's multifamily communities. The growing desire for developments that encourage pedestrian-friendly lifestyles, the expectation of visual delights, the pressure of improving a property's performance, not to mention the need for spaces that encourage the benefits and security of community building and the requirement for thoughtful water usage, are among the loads landscaping now has to carry in its wheelbarrow.

New Look

Like a fresh coat of paint or a well-appointed model, the right landscaping approach creates opportunities for increased profit by improving everything from curb appeal to resident retention. As such, it's a key tool for apartment owners and managers.

"There is branded look we want to present," says James Willden, vice president of engineering for AvalonBay Communities, based in Alexandria, Va. "Landscaping plays a big role in achieving that look."

That goes double for properties that are bought with the intention of repositioning. "We may look at an existing property that may be at a B or C level that we want to reposition, and the landscaping plays a big role in that process," says Willden. "But we don't have a set dollar amount to spend. We don't even have a set percentage. It depends on the asset and the position we want to achieve."

To determine that spot in the market, AvalonBay conducts between 10 and 20 focus groups with residents as well as potential tenants who did not choose the community. Rent and amenities matter, but so does the community's appearance. "About 10 percent of our questions concentrate on landscaping and whether it played a role in whether they rented or did not rent," Willden says.

The neighborhood's landscaping plan also takes advantage of a canal that runs through the property.

The neighborhood's landscaping plan also takes advantage of a canal that runs through the property.

The focus groups also help the company to determine the level of landscaping that is appropriate for the development. "We ask, 'Would you pay 5 percent to 10 percent more a month if there was a grassy field with a gazebo and barbecue?'" Willden says. "We don't want to undervalue the landscape amenities, but we don't want to overvalue them either."

It can be a tough equation to solve. "Return on investment falls into an intangible area that is tied to regions, which have different levels of market expectation," says Mel Easter, principal landscape architect with the Johnson Braund Design Group, Seattle, who says the value associated with landscaping varies from property to property.

Still, whatever the design plan, cheap plantings are no bargain. "We truly have found that we can achieve better curb appeal and have less risk that the landscaping will die if we purchase the right material," Willden says. "It is money well spent to bring in large, mature trees and vegetation."