Co-ops and condos draw prospective residents with a wide variety of appealing features, from proximity to an office or family member to amazing views of the Manhattan skyline to the concept of having someone else mow the lawn, fix the roof, and maintain the property. For certain residents, however, the biggest appeal of co-op and co-op living is the community of neighbors and various common spaces on the property.
“In a condo, you really don’t get a chance to interact with your neighbors,” says Marc Kotler, senior vice president of FirstService Residential’s New Development in New York City. “These spaces build a sense of community and get them involved in the building. The apathy is huge…you can’t get people to run for a board, but if you build a sense of community, that might change.”
Looking back, Kotler has been in the multifamily industry since 1987, and understands how common spaces have changed over time. “Back then, common spaces were only about laundry rooms and larger storage spaces,” he says. “Today, buildings have common areas that are for grilling, golf simulators, dog wash areas, and wine cellars. Now, they really are demographic and user-specific areas.”
In his experience, these spaces are popular among residents. “Especially in one building—where the units are typically smaller spaces—the residents will use the common areas as a form of a living room,” he says. “There are long conference tables in the rooms, and the residents will bring their laptops and work from there. You’ll also see a population of children watching television with their mothers and nannies.”
Using Your Amenities
However, the line “If you build it, they will come” may have worked for Kevin Costner's character in the movie Field of Dreams, but it doesn’t always work for a condo or co-op. Simply having a common space for residents to use—whether it be a fancy wine cellar or a simple conference room—doesn’t automatically entice them to leave their units and gather together.
“I have lived in buildings with several of these common space amenities and, in my view, they are less impressive than they sound,” says Max Galka, founder of Revaluate (revaluate.com), a company that specializes in housing data in New York City.
“The board is not under any obligation to actually do anything with these common spaces,” says Alvin Wasserman, a director of asset management at Fairfield Properties, located in Melville. “It is the board’s decision as to whether they want to do something with the space. The only required exception is when a builder builds a property with a large clubhouse, and the service is built into the offering.”
According to Wasserman, Fairfield Properties has one rental community for residents 55 and older equipped with an Internet room, movie theater, party room, billiard room, and business center.
“People need to be social and to be with each other and have someone to talk to,” says Wasserman. “But even if the facility is there and people aren’t motivated to do something with it, it’s unlikely that is going to change. I’ve been at communities where there is an indoor pool and I hardly see anyone using it, and I’ve gone to other communities where the pool is heavily used. There’s no rhyme or reason as to what the residents do.”
Building developers, however, continue to get very creative when it comes to giving resident’s spaces where they can get to know their neighbors. “At 10 Hanover Square, there is a rock climbing wall and, at 200 11th Avenue, there is a sky garage, but two amenities stood out to me as the most interesting,” says Galka.
Galka says more buildings have indoor basketball courts than he would have guessed, including 515 East 72nd Street, The Alfred, and the Element Condominium. “There are also a lot of buildings that have areas dedicated to pets,” he says. “Oddly, they all seem to serve different purposes: The Caledonia has a pet spa; The Caroline has a pet concierge; the building at 2015 East 59th Street has a private puppy park.”
In addition, he noted that buildings have created screening rooms, wine storage areas, and play areas for children. Galka explains that fitness centers are still popular common spaces, but now rooms are more for multi-use and come with a lounge, dining room, and large screen TV. “They are suited for parties, like an Oscar or Super Bowl party,” he says.
Fitness rooms, indoor pools and multipurpose rooms are very popular amenities in New York City right now,” adds Edward Corless, vice president of the National Lifestyle Division of Eatontown, New Jersey-based FirstService Residential, a management firm with several properties in New York City in its portfolio. “Multipurpose rooms are open rooms that you can use for multiple functions. You could use it for a party, or a cocktail hour or a book club or a yoga or Pilates space.
With a little creativity, the common spaces can bring residents together, but how these spaces are actually utilized depends on the individual community. “Common spaces are typically used in one of three ways,” says Wasserman. “Some communities hire an outside vendor who organizes activities—from yoga to billiard tournaments—or they hire an individual to run activities, or the residents just organize the activities on their own.”
The Social Network
Kotler says the best way to generate residents’ interest in the common rooms is to simply schedule regular programming. “You can bring in a local vendor to do a wine tasting one month and then have a local restaurant do a cooking demonstration,” he says. “In most cases, these programs are free and build that sense of community.”
A simple Internet search can provide a lot of other programming ideas for events, from psychic readings to performances by comedians and piano recital to book readings by professional authors.
Also, there are companies—such as Well Beyond 55—that can assist the board in providing unique programming to the residents. “For example, Well Beyond 55 provides free guest lectures on health and legal topics of interest to those residents over 55 years old,” says Wasserman. “The professionals they bring in hope that people will be interested in what they offer, but aren’t allowed to solicit to the residents; it’s a trust concept, service-oriented and informational.”
Keeping up with the Joneses (or, in this case, where the Joneses live)¸ isn’t just about showing off the building’s latest—and maybe greatest—common spaces to the residents, hoping they will come and use it to meet their neighbors. In fact, the common spaces can actually improve a building’s bottom line.
While many programs are free, other programs require admission fees, which can generate revenue. Also, a successful common area often gets residents talking about how much they enjoy the building. Word-of-mouth generates interest from other potential buyers who want to enjoy the same amenities.
A Fee or Free?
Be careful, however, as Wasserman says charging for events will work depending on the individual community. “For example, a golf course community will typically have a more expensive monthly HOA fee payment, and may want to pay for additional programs and use of the room,” he says. Monies can also be earned by renting out common spaces to the residents who wish to host their own events, such as holiday or birthday parties.
“The idea is, you are trying to keep up the values in your building, and new condos have the latest and greatest, so the current buildings have to reinvent themselves and keep the residents’ interest in the building,” says Wasserman.
If the board wants residents to use a space, the members may have to consider a remodel if the current space leaves a little more to be desired. A few years ago, The Solomon Organization—with properties in New York and New Jersey—converted one of the common spaces in a Lancaster, Pennsylvania property from an underutilized and outdated clubhouse into the social center of the community.
They renovated the property to include a fitness center, game room, media room with HDTV's and Wi-Fi access for all tenants, and lounge area with a kitchen that could be rented out for parties by residents.
Actually, not every building needs a separate common space to create a strong sense of community. “At one building I know that was built 15 years ago…it doesn’t have any designated common spaces for residents to throw parties or gather for events, but that doesn’t stop them from making the fun happen,” Kotler says. “Every year, they use the lobby to host a Halloween party. It’s the event that is most looked forward to by everyone, all year long, and it’s the one time a year where residents get together on a social basis and interact.”
Even buildings with the biggest, flashiest, and fanciest common rooms and programming sometimes struggle with getting residents away from their computers, televisions, and couches. While it’s not required, a building with a sense of community can turn a simple building into a home where residents tell others how much they love living there.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.