For those who live in urban centers, navigating life during COVID-19 has meant rethinking use of green spaces. Pre-COVID, the local park, courtyard or well-designed backyard may have been a nice-to-have amenity, but the pandemic brought to light the importance of accessible green spaces for both physical and emotional wellbeing. From socially distant picnics and playdates to outdoor fitness classes and leisurely walk-and-talks, green spaces have become an essential antidote to isolation, with many city dwellers rediscovering the joys of moving leisure activities outside.
For years, we’ve seen the race to reach renters often start with a building’s amenity package and the bigger is better mentality, whether it was a pool, a fitness center or, most recently, coworking space.
But living through a pandemic has given everyone a different perspective on amenities. It’s been interesting to see that the things we took for granted, like natural light and outdoor space, have become—and will continue to be—the most important amenities of all.
While many developments made connecting people and nature within built environments and communities a hallmark in recent years, what’s new in 2021 is a heightened demand for direct access to sunlight and fresh air that blends the outdoors and indoors in refreshing ways.
Going forward, we believe design will flow from a need to create environments where renters find inspiration in their natural surroundings while also benefiting from the tangible health benefits that natural light and outdoor space offer.
High-rise apartments are getting more in touch with nature. Living on the 40th or 45th floor, for example, can make tenants feel far away from it—and since the pandemic, apartment dwellers are craving closer ties to greenery. In response, more plants are coming to rooftops, lobbies, and balconies.
Optima Inc. has been adding biophilic design principles to its communities for more than 40 years. It has been offering green roofs, courtyards, and gardens. A vertical landscaping system is on display at its Optima Camelview Village in Scottsdale, Ariz. Several colorful plants grow up and over the ledge of private terraces on each floor of the building.
“This system helps enhance the natural beauty of our projects by allowing a palette of vibrantly colored plants to grow up and over the edge of each private terrace on every floor of the building,” David Hovey Jr., president and COO of Optima Inc., told Multi-Housing News earlier this year.
The American Architecture Awards are the country’s highest public recognition for architectural design excellence given by a non-commercial, non-trade affiliated public arts, culture and educational institution.
“Innovation and design excellence are at our core at Optima and to have two of our projects be recognized by the prestigious American Architecture Awards is a true honor,” said David Hovey Jr., president, of Optima.
Since 1994, The Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, together with The European Center for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies and Metropolitan Arts Press, have organized The American Architecture Awards as away to honor the best, new significant buildings and landscape and planning projects designed and/or built in the United States and abroad by the most important american architects and planners practicing nationally and internationally.
Optima has designed, developed and built some of the most architecturally significant communities in Phoenix, Scottsdale and the Chicago metropolitan areas for more than 40 years. Designed by David Hovey Sr., FAIA and David Hovey Jr., AIA, Optima’s cutting-edge, residential buildings have long been recognized for the company’s commitment to design, innovation and sustainability.
Optima Kierland Center and Optima Sonoran Village received top honors this year by being recognized as the top multi-housing developments by the American Architecture Awards.
The American Architecture Awards are the country’s highest public recognition for architectural design excellence given by a non-commercial, non-trade affiliated public arts, culture and educational institution — and a big deal to Optima and its president and principal architect, David Hovey Jr., of Scottsdale.
Not only is the award an honor for Hovey, but it is also a testament to the architectural efforts of Hovey and his father, David Sr.
“My father and I work very closely together on all of our projects and work together on every detail with our team,” Hovey Jr. said. “Both developments share the same principal philosophy to create sustainable architecture with an open park-like setting, pedestrian shaded courtyards and lush landscaping.”
Though the two buildings are alike in construction, the two have differentiating features.
“For Optima Sonoran Village, we focused on a design concept that celebrated how the native desert plants bloom and it’s been great to see how the building relates to the plants that were chosen for this project’s vertical landscaping system,” Hovey said.
“Every month there is a different plant on property in bloom and it changes the entire feel of the project.”
The Kierland complex, on the other hand, uses the nearby complexes to its advantage.
“For Kierland, the design concept was to create an open grade level plan that was heavily landscaped and evolve our vertical landscape system,” Hovey said.
“It was a great opportunity to provide luxury apartments and condominiums directly across the street from the world class Kierland Commons and Scottsdale Quarter open pedestrian friendly shopping and entertainment districts.”
Despite these differences, Hovey and his father ensured that there were distinct similarities between their masterpieces.
“Both sites are roughly 70 percent open space at grade-level and though each looks quite different from the other, the buildings share a common architectural language of undulating elevations, expressed concrete structures with large, cantilevered corners, expansive decks and open space, and our signature Optima vertical landscaping system.”
The buildings also offer two ideal locations for tenants looking for activities to get out of the house, Hovey Jr. said.
“Optima Kierland’s location across the street from both Kierland Commons and Scottsdale Quarter, and Optima Sonoran Village’s proximity to Old Town and Fashion Square offers residents the opportunity to walk to the best restaurants, shopping, and entertainment venues in Scottsdale,” he said.
Hovey has found himself having to adjust the building to accommodate the needs of tenants.
“The sharp increase in home-based work prompted the addition of more conference spaces, glass-enclosed private huddle rooms, as well as distributed antenna services throughout the buildings for resident use,” he said.
“The rooftop sky decks have also evolved with bigger pools, more shaded gathering areas, yoga studios with open sliding glass walls, Finnish sauna and cold plunges, outdoor theaters and a one-quarter mile running track.”
Because of the updates and adjustments, this prize is quite the pat on the back for the Hovey’s and Optima.
In today’s apartment marketplace, where rents and occupancy are at historically high levels, quality customer service is proving to be the differentiator.
Of the many consequences of contending with the pandemic, one of the most visible has been a groundswell in expressions of frustration. From air travel to dining to work and school, the list of grievances runs long, and rental housing residents are no different, from the perception that maintenance takes too long to coffee machines running dry.
One of the biggest complaints has been the difficulty of working from a small apartment, according to buzz at the National Multifamily Housing Council’s (NMHC) 2022 annual meeting, says attendee Mary Cook, founder of Chicago-based Mary Cook Associates (MCA), a commercial interior design firm. “Two years ago, 20 percent might have worked from home and now 45 percent do a few days each week,” Cook says. “They get upset if staff is making noise blowing leaves or cutting a lawn.”
Property managers have complaints and frustrations, too, facing a shrunken labor pool and disrupted supply chains. Despite the apartment industry experiencing historically strong occupancy levels, managers are not taking the high numbers for granted. If COVID-19 has brought home any message, it’s that situations change—fast.
Many are listening closely to residents, taking notes about leading causes of dismay and sources of joy, developing creative solutions to increase net referrals. The strategies that seem to make the biggest difference are good customer service and value. Some companies, like Chicago-based Optima Inc., a developer and property manager that created 2,135 units in Illinois and Arizona, has trademarked its Optimized Service, the equivalent of an in-home concierge, to make clear it prioritizes service.
As rent prices climb, quality service becomes more critical. The following are 10 ways to achieve it.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced multifamily leasing offices around the country to suddenly close their doors and move most of their operations online, leasing professionals and their management companies or owner/operators stepped up to the challenge. They embraced new technology, in many cases for the first time, and found ways to create connections with prospects while still focusing on the best ways to market their properties.
Multi-Housing News reached out to some of the country’s top leasing specialists and asked them to discuss the challenges and share some of the secrets behind their success.
The panelists include:
Devin Dowling, head of leasing, The Apartments at Bonnie Ridge, Baltimore, Westminster Management
Rebecca Fox, senior leasing manager, Morgan Properties
Isabella Horne, assistant community manager, Brea Wendell Falls, Wendell, N.C., Bell Partners
Conny Matos, general manager, Gio Midtown, Miami, Bozzuto Management Co.
Ivonne McNeese, property manager at The Marq, Virginia Beach, Va., and former leasing agent at Red Knot at Edinburgh, Chesapeake, Va., The Breeden Co.
Heather Sims, senior leasing professional, Optima Sonoran Village, Scottsdale, Ariz., Optima Realty Inc.
What were some challenges faced when the pandemic began and how did you overcome them to continue marketing your property or properties?
Dowling: Once Westminster added virtual touring and showed us how to do a shared screen, we could actually do a tour with somebody, a virtual tour with side-by-side screens, so it did make them feel like they were right here with us. That helped tremendously. The very first year doing virtual tours, occupancy jumped from 93 to 97 percent, in the middle of the pandemic.
Fox: Prior to the pandemic, we primarily sent photos and online brochures along with the occasional use of FaceTime. We’ve added the use of Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Matterport tours. By using these tools, we are able to continue to personalize our online touring so that prospective renters can feel like they are physically with us without leaving the comfort of their homes. We also digitized our online brochure to include links to the community, video, photos, Matterport, floor plans and online leasing.
Horne: The pandemic allowed us to be proactive in implementing technology innovations that are still in use companywide. Some of these innovations include self-guided tours, virtual tours and enhanced videography. We’ve also learned that people like to have information at their fingertips and in real time. We introduced two AI formats—Meet Elise and Better Bot, allowing our prospects and residents to have access to immediate communications and information.
Matos: (Gio Midtown opened in 2020 just as the pandemic began.) Building rapport was essential in getting to know our customers and understanding their needs. We had folks coming from out of state due to the pandemic or for work who had some concerns not knowing the area and also leasing sight unseen.
The tour tool we use does allow live tour sessions so it’s pre-recorded but you can do it live and take customers through that journey. We were inviting them for a cup of coffee even if it was virtually. “Grab your favorite drink, let’s have a seat and walk through this floorplan you’re interested in.”
What are some examples of thinking outside the box when marketing to potential renters?
Fox: Add personal touches to their tour. Are they bringing a pet with them? Have dog or cat bowls and toys and say the pet’s name during the tour. Is their child really into Peppa Pig right now? Include a coloring sheet to send to them. Find out what will make your apartment theirs.
Dowling: We have a good rapport with hospitals here like Johns Hopkins and Sinai Hospital and Travelers Haven, which is one of our corporate leasers. If we don’t hear from them for awhile, we will reach out and say, ‘We’ve done some renovations if you have any clients coming that might be interested.’
Matos: As part of our welcome home commitment, we seal our apartment homes after they’ve been sanitized and cleaned. We’re so confident in our system, checklist and ensuring that everything is exceeding expectations for move-in that we stand behind a 30-day guarantee if they’re not happy.
McNeese: We have a high population of military in this area. In some cases, many were on ships, and they couldn’t utilize FaceTime. If videos were too big, they couldn’t open them. But we could send emails. We could send pictures and customize it to the potential resident’s needs. I also did several videos in Spanish. At Red Knot we also did furniture rentals because we were able to do six-month leases. People were asking about furniture rentals. We hadn’t implemented it at that point, and we said why not. People were in between homes or waiting for their homes to be built and so we started putting packages together. It’s now permanent and extended to other properties.
What are some examples of building brand awareness for your property?
Horne: We increased our content on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to not only cater to our current residents, but also to interact with potential new residents and get them engaged. Prospects got to see different facets of the community and really imagine us being their new home. Google scores are also vitally important as many times prospects will go online to look for feedback from current residents.
Matos: We did put more of an emphasis on creating brand awareness to help convey who we are and where we stand in the market against our competitors. So we went deeper into training for our team to understand the product more than ever because you’re answering so many questions when touring virtually.
We’re very conscious of what we post (on social media). We want to spark interest, and we understand and we’re all trained to focus on what audience I am targeting with what I’m posting. What kind of reaction am I looking to get? How do I want to further engage with residents and potential residents in what I’m posting? We found it helpful in promoting local areas and events, which make the community that much more attractive.
Sims: We’ve always had professional photos and we keep refreshing images on the website or the virtual tour. Last year Optima bought all new outdoor furniture for the pool and roof deck. They came in and did all new photos and will also do that if we’ve done upgrades or renovations.
We’ll have marketing meetings and chose an apartment to feature in a digital flier. Today we picked our last three-bedroom, two-bath in one of our towers to blow out through an email blast or text message. We do that five days a week.
Fox: At Morgan Properties, we pride ourselves on taking a customer-centric approach where all customers “Experience More with Morgan.” The journey begins when our prospective residents are in the awareness phase of leasing and continues through residency. Our leasing success is derived from three factors: making great first impressions, building rapport and personalizing our tours to show we really care about their needs.
What are some of your top qualities that have led to your success as a leasing agent?
Horne: The greatest tool anyone can have is friendliness, which helps build rapport and client relationships. Next is product knowledge, which allows you to not only connect with your prospect, but also to take complete ownership in what you are offering.
Sims: I am very approachable and very personable. I provide first-class service and take the time to listen to the prospect and understand them. My knowledge of the property goes hand in hand with it.
Dowling: I just try to make that connection and try to make the prospect feel comfortable and see exactly what they want. I don’t want you to feel like you can’t ask me a question, and I will be as honest with you as possible.
Making Use of Existing Tennis and Basketball Courts
Before installing dedicated courts, luxury developers can try out pickleball at their facilities for a negligible price. They can add lines to existing tennis and basketball courts and roll out temporary nets.
The Abaco Club gauged residents’ interest in the game by adding stripes to its tennis court before committing to the smaller-sized courts. The residential developer Optima Inc., which owns properties in Scottsdale, Arizona and Chicago, did the same by painting stripes on indoor basketball courts.
“The requirements are similar to those of an indoor basketball court, so it’s been an easy addition. The most important thing to consider in planning a pickleball court is space and creating the striping overlay on the existing court in a way that’s cohesive,” said David Hovey Jr., AIA, president, COO and principal architect of Optima, Inc.
To meet demand, they’ve planned an outdoor pickleball stadium at their forthcoming luxury apartment tower, 7190 Optima Kierland. The 216-unit tower is slated to open in 2023 in Scottsdale. “We’re excited to build resident programming around this newest feature, possibly hosting a tournament,” Mr. Hovey said.