About halfway through our judging of this year’s MFE Awards entries, one of my fellow judges called me over to look at a project. “This is one of the most gorgeous high-rises I’ve seen in a long time. It’s just breathtaking. But it can’t win,” he declared. I took the bait. “Now, why’s that?” I asked.
The judge began to explain that this project—a gleaming condo tower in downtown Austin, Texas—boasted per-square-foot development costs that could never be justified on a rental high-rise. He pointed to another batch of high-rise entries: “These are gorgeous. Look at this one in Chicago, or this one in Atlanta. Completely high-end, beautiful, but even still, they can’t compete with this kind of custom for-sale project. The rents you’d need to ask to justify something like this as a rental are astronomical.”
Of course, he had a point. And out of the discussion was born the new MFE Awards High-Rise, Condo category. (And in case you’re wondering, the Austin high-rise, The Austonian, did take home the grand prize in that category. You can see the write-up on page 25.)
Judging the MFE Awards each year is a fun, exciting, and enlightening process. Every year, I walk out of the daylong process having glimpsed the future of design and amenities, learned about the latest in forward-looking services and technologies, and been inspired with a dozen or more story ideas.
And sure, these ideas are great, but for me, the most fascinating and rewarding aspect of judging the annual entries is that it offers a microcosm of the entire multifamily universe. For example, many of the projects that opened their doors in 2010 and 2011 were born in the fall of 2008, when the catastrophic Wall Street failures created a strangled lending environment—a death sentence for many developers. But the fact that many of these new communities—which include Editors’ Choice Award and best Mid-Rise winner The Fitzgerald (see page 26), a glamorous, glass-and-metal–clad building in Baltimore—were able to persevere, to find financing, and to reach full occupancy levels despite the economic havoc is a testament to the tenacity of the apartment developer.
On the technology side, the industry-wide push away from in-house program development or back-end administrative systems was all too clear. In fact, the companies that won an MFE Award for Best Use of Technology this year focused on creating front-facing solutions that make the lives of employees and prospects alike easier.
Most important, this microcosm of the multifamily world shows that what really matters most in today’s development big picture is making sense of the dollars behind the digs. On our entry form, we ask for the financials of every project, and companies often balk at having to share who or what is providing funding. But how can we name a community as the pinnacle of excellence without checking to make sure it will still be financially sound a few years down the road?
This year, I was pleased to see the conservative underwriting pencil out on many projects. Despite continued evidence of luxury finishes and high-end amenities, there was, for the first time in a number of years, a very visible shift toward a more responsible financial package behind the fancy fixtures.
I, for one, am glad to see this shift. And I’m glad that, for the first time, the real estate sector that’s leading the recovery isn’t running rampant but is showing signs of maturity and responsibility as it looks to a future of growth and expansion. So, congratulations to all the winners, whose work we celebrate beginning on page 23. Keep up the impressive results. After all, we’ll be watching.