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How Property Managers Protect Amenities During COVID-19

Property managers have become good innovators to ensure the safe enjoyment of amenities amid the challenges the pandemic has presented.   

In recent years, amenities have become a magnet to attract residents, spurring a war of better equipped gyms, swimming pools and communal kitchens, as well as a collection of experiential services, from dog walking to outdoor yoga to mixology classes.

Because of the pandemic, however, property managers have shifted their focus to developing the safest protocols for residents to share facilities and services.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, trends are emerging. Some are influenced by design professionals who are reconfiguring existing spaces and adjusting projects on their drawing boards and others by the colder weather that necessitates certain precautions.

Better Air

The healthfulness of a building and its shared spaces is now considered an amenity and many managers retrofit them with well-ventilated, expensive HVAC systems, says architect Victor Body-Lawson, founder of New York City-based Body Lawson Associates, Architects & Planners. “We want to stop the transference of COVID-19 as much as possible,” he says. “There’s increased attention on the systems you don’t see but breathe, so air is treated properly indoors before expelled outdoors.” 

To upgrade existing systems, owners might pay a 10% premium or 5% for similar upgrades in new construction projects, Body-Lawson says. Those who find these efforts cost prohibitive could consider cost-effective alternatives, such as portable, stand-alone air purification systems with ionizers, UV sanitizers and HEPA filters that work with existing systems.

Buildings of the future will likely be constructed from the start with systems that exchange fresh air in the best possible way. “More renters have this expectation in a post-COVID-19 world,” says Jared Minatelli, Director of Asset Management at Advance Realty Investors, a developer and manager based in Bedminster, N.J., which is redesigning a building in Harrison, N.J., to make it as healthy as possible.

Heavily trafficked spaces are also improved. Optima Inc. installed bi-polar ionization technology in elevators at its 57-story Chicago Optima Signature building, which continuously cleans air, reduces odors and fights many bacteria, viruses and molds, says President David Hovey Jr.

Distinct Trends for Outdoor and Indoor Amenities

Since the beginning of the pandemic, both exterior and interior spaces have been adapted and reprogrammed for safer active and passive use. This helps keep current residents engaged and has attracted new renters as well, says Mary Cook, founder of Chicago-based Mary Cook Associates, a commercial interior design company that has been involved in developing creative solutions in response to residents’ needs today as well as pre- and post-COVID-19.

“Pets, plug-ins, and packages are leading the way for resident needs, and we are responding with innovative remote workspaces, outdoor fitness, pet-friendly activities, better package handling and fun social activities over Zoom,” Cook says.

Outdoor Space

Outdoor space has never been more popular in apartment settings, even in winter, says Kris Lindahl, CEO and Founder of Kris Lindahl Real Estate in Blaine, Minn. Architect John Cetra of New York City-based CetraRuddy Architecture confirms this. “Almost every building we now help design has some type of outdoor space, either at ground level, off an amenity floor or on the roof,” he says.

The pandemic has intensified the effort to draw residents outdoors. For example, at the Optima Signature building, multiple outdoor living spaces are each equipped with fire pits, heaters and grills, Hovey says. Buildings have also spaced out their furnishings or replaced large couches with smaller movable pieces for distanced seating groups, Lindahl says.  

Aspire Residences, developed by Draper and Kramer, opened in Chicago last August with a large deck off its fourth floor with three separate resort-style cabanas, each with a TV. Other buildings add grills, mini kitchens, music, lighting and overhead covers.

Studio-MLA, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, altered plans at a new rental building in Santa Monica, Calif., to include a large lounge area that can be broken into smaller groupings rather than have a pool and one big social deck, says Kush Parekh, Associate Principal and Landscape Architect.

Similar changes are also occurring at ground level. Body-Lawson’s firm is setting up “parklets” that extend from sidewalks—akin to what others call yurts or igloos—to give residents a safer, warmer and well-illuminated place to eat or converse privately.

Landscaping is used as a natural divider, which CetraRuddy did when it designed distinct areas at its ARO building in New York City. There management limits use to residents who pay to join a club, Cetra says. Other managers require residents to schedule visits on an app or email list, with time built in to clean and sanitize, says Minatelli. “As more stay home and cook, grills get greater use,” he says.

Some developers and managers also reconfigure square footage for the most popular, safest uses. For example, Chicago-based Waterton, a value-add developer, is constructing walking paths, dog runs, bocce ball courts and switching out infrequently used tennis courts for soccer fields, says Lela Cirjakovic, Executive Vice President of Operations.

At Advance Realty’s Harlow building in Hoboken, N.J., a courtyard is being resurfaced with turf. Some buildings go further and develop parks for residents and the community to share, which Lendlease, an Australian-based developer, did with land outside its Cooper at Southbank Chicago building.

Indoor Facilities

Many managers are mixing up strategies to pare numbers and improve safety, closing some shared spaces—gyms and pools— limiting numbers through apps or reduced seating, unplugging fitness equipment and removing high-contact points like coffee machines that are hard to keep sanitized, says Jake Dietrich, Vice President of Development at Milhaus. His company also uses security cameras and staff to encourage social distancing. “We’ve been pleased by the willingness to comply,” he says.

Just as certain outdoor amenities have become more popular in winter and during the coronavirus, some indoor amenities have gained greater traction among residents. Game rooms with a sports simulator have become one of the most popular and appeal to all ages, says Aspire’s Manager Caitlyn Van Senus. Optima Signature has a golf simulator, too, along with a full-size basketball court and lap pool, available by reservation.   

Also high on many residents’ wish lists are offices that give residents a change of scenery and privacy if they share an apartment. Aspire’s three glass-enclosed offices let occupants see others but socially distance while working. Some buildings do this in a more flexible way with movable partitions as needs change, especially for Zoom meetings or podcasts, says Body-Lawson.

Sterling Properties favors “cool” banquettes with partition walls, says Nick Hollenbeck, Director of Sales and Marketing. The company also furnishes lounge areas for working from home with furniture that has built-in outlets to power up laptops and mobile devices. De rigueur is strong, free Wi-Fi, says Van Senus.

Because seeing nature is considered a boon to wellness, Lendlease will devote part of the amenity space at its forthcoming Cirrus and Cascade buildings in the Lakeshore East community to a south-facing, plant-filled conservatory that looks out through floor-to-ceiling glass on a park. “It will be a nice place for quiet, to read or meditate when it opens this year,” says Linda Kozloski, Creative Design Director.

Spaces that cannot be safely used for their intended purposes may be repurposed. Some of Body-Lawson’s clients, especially those focused on affordable housing, set up living quarters for family members who test positive for the coronavirus and do not have another place to go. “They can stay until they recover,” he says. A vacant apartment can be furnished as an office for working from home, which 727 West Madison is doing. Also, lobbies designed to be places for residents to meet at their coffee shops and juice vendors now function as “exchanges” to pick up package deliveries, says Parekh of Studio-MLA.

Experiential Offerings

To replace that sense of lost community, many managers look for other ways to keep residents not feeling isolated. “It’s all about reimagining typical community activities in a shared space now electronically,” says Kozloski.

Activities have gone far beyond the ho-hum. For example, Lendlease has hosted gingerbread house competitions and area retailer pop-ups. Aspire offers residents’ virtual craft beer tastings, cooking demonstrations and sip and paint classes with supplies prepackaged to grab-and-go or be dropped off at each participant’s door. Advance Realty management has organized pastry classes, floral arranging and hired restaurants to prepare and deliver food residents order to their door, a spin on room service.

The latest way some up the ante is for mobile vans to travel to their sites. Cocktails? Check. Food? Yup. And a dental clinic on wheels eases fears of those about going into a traditional office.

What’s Coming

Once life returns to the new normal, many expect the combination of being safe and creative will continue. “I think Zoom and teleconferencing are a part of our lives. They offer great savings since you don’t have to travel or expend energy and time to get to work or a class,” says Body-Lawson.

What may change may be technology that makes buildings smarter, and help in controlling costs and better inform decision-making, from the size of amenity spaces to reconfiguring uints to resident and staff communication. 

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer.

Sidebar: More Deals

To remain competitive as residents switch buildings or locations, more buildings use rent concessions as an amenity. 

When 727 West Madison opened in Chicago, it leased 90% of its apartment homes and did not need to offer concessions. Then the pandemic hit, leases got competitive as people left the city and broke leases, and it started offering concessions of a few months, depending on a floor plan and base rent, says the Building’s Manager Beth Argaman.

Aspire Residences in Chicago has followed a similar strategy. It now offers up to three months free on certain floor plans. “We increased that since we saw some nearby buildings offer one to two months,” says Property Manager Caitlyn Van Senus. Her company has also found it important to offer the latest fiber networking and wireless throughout common spaces and the lowest rates in apartment homes, plus a choice of providers.