Urban Living Trends
What do the experts say on the Valley’s latest housing fad?
By David M. Brown
Developers are investing billions of dollars into urban-living newbuilds and renovations. Lofts, condos, townhomes in a variety of configurations and high-rises are attracting an array of buyers, from Millennials and Gen Xers to Baby Boomer empty-nesters. As the homesteading paradigm changes, Phoenix is distancing itself from the Wagon out West, put up your fence and enjoy the rural lifestyle mentality. Reporter David M. Brown brought together a group of experts to discuss this and the burning issues surrounding Valley urban living.
DMB: Let’s start with some of the larger issues of urban living. Why the proliferation of urban living spaces in an area whose tendencies have been almost anti-urban?
BG: One of the major drivers is that people who live here didn’t grow up in Phoenix and they’re used to a different type of living. We have a large part of the population coming in from the Chicago area, and that’s the way they’re use to living. The reasons? For one, people like to be around people. The hallways become the front porches, you run into your neighbors in the elevators.
DMB: Car dependency: How is that driving the demand for urban living?
SB: We’re working on several sites on the light rail route in downtown Phoenix, so developers are banking on having close access to that. Indeed, these developments would decrease our dependency on the automobile. Another reason is that people are tired of the daily commute, the sprawl. They’re starting to focus where the activities are.
DMB: But that’s a paradigm shift. People traditionally moved West for open space, not for urban space.
JB: Yes. The development patterns of the past have changed. In the past it was the developers rolling out the red carpet, grabbing up land because that was the most cost effective way to go. But what’s happening now is that there’s an influx of people and a demand for urban redevelopment. Right now, there may be 2,000—some developers say 5,000—of these units in construction. That will shake out in time. Traditionally the Valley developed in a variety of nodes, such as Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe. And, of all of them, where you can work and play, the one that I think has the best chance is Tempe, which has so many of the components for success in place. Kierland is a great place, and will be a great model and successful, but it’s still car dependent and I think it always will be…For downtown Phoenix, I am not yet sure as to how it will sustain itself in terms of the urban living model. There are a lot of condos being built or on the boards.
DMB: Hasn’t the urban living component been the element that has been missing there for so many years. The stadium is good, the entertainment venues, but the city needed people down there 24/7 to support the restaurants, the shops?
SB: And a grocery store!
JB: Yes. We will see how that plays out.
DMB: How about demographics? Is youth is a factor for the rise of urban living? We are one of the youngest big cities in the country.
BG: I think older people are getting younger, too. They’re looking at the same kind of fashions as the younger generation.
JB: It’s a lifestyle decision. Across the board, there’s a choice being made, whether you’re a Baby Boomer or a young professional or a young couple. They’re making a choice whether to live out on the fringe or near the mix of what’s going on.
DMB: How about the spaces themselves? They are various in terms of design—high rises, lofts, condos—but similar perhaps in terms of flexibility. That is, they are performing the functions of the white picket-fence home.
DL: We’ve been doing towers and townhomes, too, with equal interest by the buying public. What draws them together is that they must be part of the urban fabric. The townhomes, with a front door, open up to the street with a front yard. The high rises also engage the city as well.
SB: The Esplanade on the Camelback Corridor is a high-end area, with an average size of about 2,800 square feet. Those buyers want something totally different than what the loft product buyers want—more toward downtown and Tempe. The finish levels are different, the prices are different.
DMB: Much of this urban living market is enabled by the wealthy. What about overall affordability? Can the urban living model provide a variety for students and young couples?
DL: Yes, I think so. Let’s look at the markets that we’ve identified: First, the retirees; then the empty-nesters; dual-income, no children; investors; and those who are buying a second home.
BG: I think we can throw in a new category of the newly divorced . . .
SB: Then there’s another category, such as the W Hotel going downtown: the hotel, with a major portion of condominiums.
DMB: So because of the many markets, there are opportunities for affordable urban living spaces?
SB: Yes, that’s what’s driving the smaller units in downtown Phoenix. The goal our developer has on the downtown projects is a price point under $400 a square foot. That’s difficult to do on high-rise construction because of the requirements of that mode of construction. So, if you can keep the price under $500,000, that’s a good entry level price point.
DMB: What about the design itself?
JB: You mentioned flexibility and that’s a big part of those spaces. Say it’s a studio or a one-bedroom: Our challenge is how to make that one-bedroom feel as if it’s the biggest one bedroom you can get? Well, you get floor-to-ceiling glass. You have a balcony with doors, so the room expands when they’re open and you get additional space. Say the balcony is 180 square feet and the unit is 640 or so; you’re entertaining and you open up those doors, so now you have an 800-square-foot unit.
DMB: This is a different way of thinking. The luxury single home opens out toward more space; these require the designer’s capacity to, in essence, create space?
JB: You become as efficient as you can; you use every inch.
SB: You want the greatest floor-to-ceiling height these units can afford. At the same, time, you have a fixed envelope for high-rise projects. What we will often do is provide the lower floor-to-ceiling heights on the lower floors and greater on the upper. It would be nice if we didn’t have to fight the limit on every project.
BG: Getting back to the matter of space, I guess I would call it “rigid flexibility” because you want to move things around inside the units. Certain matters are fixed, like the plumbing; but you can change the interior, too, with items like furnishings.
DMB: You might speak a little to that, Janelle? You coordinated the models at the Landmark on Central, originally built in 1964 as a luxury apartment complex. What were your challenges to convert these to 21st century condos?
JS: You want to retain functionality yet fit it into a very small space. You’re dealing with a market that wants to work at home, wants a place to dine, a view, all of that. But you have a small space. You have a kitchen that opens onto a living area, which is very good. But the developer was creative, too. The company took a studio and connected it with a one bedroom and made a two bedroom. This allowed them to use the entrance to the studio as a larger plaza and an office space. So, we were able to pull lines in there and utilize this space for their computer or laptop. We were also able to develop usable space from some of the closets, while still maintaining closet space in the bedrooms.
DMB: That seems to be a theme here. Maximize, utilize to the fullest. How about furnishings?
JS: Well, we had to custom design a lot of the furniture there. We made tables lower, for example, which makes the ceilings appear higher. And, the developer also did some unique features to reawaken those existing hallways.
DMB: How is the market dictating what you are building?
BG: Technology is key. We need to make sure the units are wired for everything. The work-from-home trend is a big deal, and wireless technology is certainly important.
JB: It’s an always-on environment. We have people constantly walking around with their PDAs and constant inputs.
SB: Well, we’re doing media rooms in some of our spaces—places that collect all of these inputs. Big-screen TV, computer, that sort of thing.
JB: So many of these places have concierge services where you can check in through a media center to see what’s going on in downtown Phoenix tonight.
DMB: And this is also good for empty-nesters, too?
JS: Allied with this is that so many of these buyers don’t want to do anything. They just want to turn the key, get their car, which has been brought up by the valet service and drive away.
DMB: Are we becoming more cosmopolitan with our living needs?
DL: We talked about Tempe, that it has so many of these components for urban living in place. For one, they have to be safe. And, there have to be schools in place. You have to have services and, fourth, you have to have things to do. That’s what we’re doing in the warehouse district of Phoenix, to make a segue into an entertainment strip they are working on. If you’re missing one, that’s not good. Tempe has it all.
DMB: At Centerpoint in Tempe, you are actually trying to embrace the street.
JB: Yes, the front plaza of the project is the front yard.
BG: Of course, it’s not for everybody. When we were developing Kierland, we actually looked at Mill Avenue.
JB: Tempe is its own model and Kierland is a different and very successful model. Each can be successful in its own way. What it all comes back to is location. You can build a small unit because you have all of the other amenities around you. These young people coming out of school, they are used to spending time in an urban environment, so that they can go out shopping, sitting at the street café. It’s an extension of their living space.
JS: I have two questions. As the economy levels off, will the excitement level off about these spaces? And, the lifestyle issue. I may walk down the hall and run into people I may not want to see. I think one of the high rises, perhaps the Esplanade, advertised that someone may knock on your door for a cocktail party. Well, maybe that’s too much. Where’s my privacy?
BG: To the question of are we overbuilt: I think we can all name the projects that are going, which are working. Most developers are not going to get building until they have a substantial number of presales, so it’s not going forward if it’s not going to work.
JS: I don’t think we are quite there yet. I would be concerned about the ones on the boards.
SB: We’ve got 10 or 12 towers on the boards and not all of them are going to happen. It depends who pulls the trigger first. The developers all seem to be waiting there on the next guy.
DMB: More for the high rises or the lofts?
SB: I see it more for the high rises because of the costs involved.
DL: We have two things that are happening in this state that are not happening elsewhere. One is population. As long as we are getting more people at the rate that we are getting them, I am not sure that we will have this sort of bust. If population levels off, then something else may happen. The other part of this is that the mayor in his recent “State of the Downtown” address said that the goal is to have 10,000 people downtown. So, align that with housing, and go and find 50 or so available pieces of land for the new developments. The answer is that you have to go up. And with high rises, as you know, there are often years of the entitlement process to go through.
DMB: We have to sum up. Let’s go around the room for some closing thoughts.
SB: As an architect, I like these projects because they come with a program, rather than just a series of specs and spaces. I think this kind of project is gong to continue to happen more and more in Phoenix. My only concern involves construction costs and their escalation: These projects could become both unaffordable to build and also to sell.
BG: I think we also need to revisit how buildings are built. Over the next 10 years, I think there will be a lot of changes coming on line.
JB: I’ve been here for 10 years now, from Chicago. I came out here for school, but I stayed out here because I thought the opportunity here was greater than it was in Chicago. When I first came out, from a younger generation’s perspective, Phoenix was a stop to somewhere else; now it’s become a place to go. These projects are part of that evolution. These monumental buildings help to create urban density and a city. This is why we are all here, to execute these kinds of projects. They contribute to the vitality of the economy, of the city.