Your Roof-Lounge or My Library? Next Generation Common Areas

If you flip through the advertisements for new condo buildings in the real estate section of New York magazine or Time Out NY, you've probably noticed that more and more developers are including well-appointed libraries, residents-only social clubs, roof decks, and other social spaces in their building plans. They're calling them "resident lounges," "observatories," or "sun decks," and these spaces are intended to get the new unit owners out of their units and networking, socializing, and generally hanging out with each other - as well as fostering a feeling of exclusivity and privilege among prospective buyers.

Such amenities are relatively new additions to the usual array of in-house gyms, concierge services, and bare-bones community rooms that yesterday's buyers came to expect, and while they are adding to the social ambiance of the community of unit owners, they are also adding to the value of the buildings.

Old and New

New condo buildings are going up all over the city, with current development hotspots in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Manhattan's West Side - particularly along the 42nd St. corridor - and Long Island City. In order to distinguish one building from the rest, developers have started offering high-end amenities to lure potential buyers, especially those in higher income brackets. New buildings are catering to a new audience - one who knows what they want in a living environment.

"The new spaces are more focused, spaces that are definitely libraries or children's playrooms," says Barbara Fox, of Fox Residential Group. "These are spaces that are earmarked for something very specific and very today."

William Ross, director of development marketing for Halstead Property, agrees. "The spaces are divided up into specific uses: some of the newer building have rooms that are designed for exercising and some that are designed for children."

Another major difference in this new generation of community rooms is the quality of the furnishings and equipment. "Most of them have some areas that are gearing toward working on a computer, like a home office," says Ross, "but on the other hand, some have reached a point where they are literally mini-movie theaters with big screens and projectors. They're much more technologically advanced. They're not just a sitting room with card tables anymore."

Community rooms have, in fact, reached beyond the walls that enclose them. In many of the larger buildings, a roof deck or outdoor garden provides a welcome respite from the pace of city living - and may even be the building's major attraction. "If it has a fantastic view," says Ross, "the building will give over part of the roof as an outdoor space for cocktail parties and the like."

Room Specialties

Opulent roof decks and private bowling alleys aside, the gym or exercise room is probably still the most common type of community room in modern residential buildings. The more unusual offerings are gaining ground, however - and many of them sound like something only a multimillionaire could afford to put in their home: mini movie theaters, deluxe play spaces with padded floors for children, elegant European-style libraries with paneling and ladders on wheels that move along the stacks. Some of the bigger projects now even have indoor pools.

Developers combine these social spaces in ways that try to appeal to a greater percentage of the unit owners or tenants. "If we can throw in three or four different uses - and that's what we are trying to do nowadays," says Fox, "we try to appeal to as many people as we can."

One new project on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn that Ross is working on contains a residents-only library with beautiful woodwork and a bar, so that it can double as a relaxing study or a swanky party facility. The building also has a fabulous landscaped community garden as well as a fitness room, a pool, and a multi-functional community room.

Another luxury building, Manhattan's Sutton 57 on East 57th Street between Second and Third Avenues, offers one of the more unusual social spaces - a moon garden. According to their sales literature, Broadway Management Company, the building developers, came up with the moon garden concept after taking into account that many of their residents might only be able to use the outdoor space during the evening.

Planting several varieties of foliage whose flowers would open as evening came on was just part of the design. In addition to the moon vines, "four o'clocks," and lamb's ear, the outdoor garden features crescent-shaped planters, celestial-printed upholstery on deck furniture, and soft wall lighting to foster an intimate atmosphere for residents as they relax after work.

The Appeal

Part of the appeal of these new spaces is that they extend the limits of the unit that a resident is buying. ""The more bells and whistles a project has, the more appealing it is to buyers, particularly younger buyers," says Fox. "Tenants may live in apartments that are small, so they use these rooms for entertaining guests."

Ross agrees. "It allows somebody to buy their space, their apartment, and also know that they have the ability to throw a party or have a guest's party and have a space available that is larger than their apartment."

Fox recently sold an apartment in a building on 84th Street and Lexington to a couple that was very attracted to the building's pool and children's playroom. "Without those things I don't think they would have taken the apartment."

Putting it to Use

The amount of actual use a community space gets can vary. Some buildings with well-appointed social spaces and socially active tenants may be used regularly, while others, with less motivated tenants, can languish, unused and empty.

"The Sweeney Building has a nice outdoor space on the roof and there have been several functions up there," says Ross.

One advantage to having rooms that appeal to different social uses is that different parts of the building population may be more inclined to use them, according to Ross. "Exercise rooms typically get used by 20 to 30 percent of the residents," he says. "If you also have a community room that is a library with a bar, it may be used by another 20 to 30 percent of the residents who may not be using the exercise room. A children's playroom might get used by a different set of residents than those exercising or those in the library setting."

"People like to know they are there if and when they need them, but they don't necessarily use them often," says Fox. "I think children's playrooms are used a lot. Gyms are used a lot - although I live in a relatively large building with a gym and I am there every morning, and half the mornings there is no one else in there!"

To the Roof

Stephen Varone, AIA, president of Rand Engineering & Architecture PC in Manhattan, and Peter Varsalona, P.E., a principal with the company, caution that many factors go into installing a roof deck. "People walking or playing on the roof, lounge furniture, equipment, broken glass and other debris, for example, can damage the roof membranes and weaken their waterproofing ability. In addition, a large group of people or heavy objects can strain the roof's underlying structure if it is not designed to handle such loads," according to Varone and Varsalona.

Some of the options for installation include raised wood decks; pavers (which are commonly concrete or rubber tiles); or mineral-embedded layers that are applied to the existing roof surface. Boards must also beware to check with an engineer and follow the New York City building code to ensure that the building's new recreational surface is installed properly. Adding a recreational roof system also requires a permit from the city's Department of Buildings (DOB), says Varone and Varsalona.

While most luxe community amenities are the domain of co-op and condo buildings, a few high-end luxury rental buildings have gotten in on the act as well. Susan Iseman lives in a rental building on York and 90th Street in Manhattan that has a community space on the roof that she used for a very special occasion.

"It's an indoor/outdoor facility that can be rented by the tenants for a nominal fee," she says. "It's furnished to look like a family room with little tables and seating and a fully equipped galley kitchen. The outside terrace wraps around the side and has a few bushes. It is a fabulous space and we have had several parties here, because it is such a great space and so cheap - and then we decided to have our wedding there. It's the kind of space where you can really do it up or not, depending on how many people you want to have. For our wedding we formalized it."

Having the apartment just downstairs was an added bonus to the bride, making her pre-ceremony preparations that much closer and easier. "Instead of going up the aisle," says Iseman, "I went up the elevator!"

The Cost of Luxury

Adding these rooms and their various appointments can be a costly addition to a developer's enterprise. Fortunately, the extra dollars required to install them are spread out over the cost of each unit in the building - how much of an increase there will be for potential buyers naturally all depends on the total money spent by the developer and the number of units.

"If you take a room and decorate it and add beautiful furniture and you buy books or whatever, it is expensive," says Fox. "It can be a couple hundred thousand dollars. It could be more, or it could be less. It depends on what the rooms are and what they do with them. I know that gym equipment can be expensive by the time you pay for all the machines and the soundproofing. "

Ross agrees. "If you take a building like one with pool, an exercise room, a library, and separate children's [playroom] or Pilates room, it could add four or five percent to the purchase price [of each unit.] If the building has very little in the way of facilities - one community room, say - it may not add much at all."

"[Special amenities] should fit within the parameters of what the developer is building," continues Ross. "If he is building a high-end building, he has got to add a high-end community facility. If he does that, it will add a certain number of dollars per square-foot, spread over the cost of the apartments."

Some community rooms could theoretically be used to generate revenue by renting the space to monthly group meetings, for example, but according to Ross and Fox - that doesn't happen much. They tend to be for residents only, who can usually reserve the space for a small fee or even free of charge.

Added Value

"The real question is, what kind of value does it bring?" says Ross. "These amenities contribute to a sense of the community. That's important."

"The overall ambience of a building is what is enhanced," adds Fox. "There are so many buildings with these wonderful amenities now, that people have come to expect them, as opposed to having them be the exception. I think that people are willing to pay a little more to have them in-house."

An investment in an apartment - a home - goes beyond the mere dollars that it takes to buy in or sell out. Homes and home communities need to resonate emotionally for residents, and these amenities go a long way toward providing a home environment that many people find desirable.

Denton Tarver is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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