When creating outdoor amenity spaces for people, it’s common to wish for these two desirable but incompatible conditions:
- People will love and use the space, leading to greater sales and tenant retention, and
- Your space will remain unused in order to save on maintenance costs and limit liability.
Where most multifamily real estate developers go wrong is wanting to have their cake and eat it, too. They purposefully limit the features of the amenity space while maintaining the belief that it will still be a functional and attractive place for people.
It’s next to impossible to discourage misuse of outdoor spaces while simultaneously inviting the proper use of amenities. Individual users will always use a space differently than what was intended. One simply cannot plan for every contingency.
But, what you can do is wisely manage your expectations and prioritize what matters most to you and the success of your development.
Addressing Outdoor Amenity Maintenance Concerns
Everything you build will require some maintenance. Some features require a substantial amount. But if you evaluate an idea solely upon its maintenance requirements, you’re missing the more important side of the coin.
Consider what may be the most common landscape feature in America: turf grass. It comes with a very high maintenance requirement. During the summer it requires 2-2 1/2 inches of water per week, along with regular fertilizer applications. It needs to be mowed at least once a week and can fall victim to diseases and insect damage. When weeds start to grow, they can be very difficult to remove.
And yet, hardly anybody thinks twice about planting turf grass on their projects. Why? Because it is culturally accepted. People expect to see it and property managers and maintenance staff are familiar with its maintenance requirements, no matter how labor-intensive they may be.
The most common multifamily outdoor amenity could very well be the swimming pool. Pools are expensive features that require a huge amount of maintenance. Daily skimming of leaves and debris, brushing sediment from pool walls, vacuuming, weekly cleaning of skimmers, keeping the pump running, checking the filter and backwash, and testing pool water and adding chemicals are just a few examples of regular pool maintenance requirements.
Think about it this way. If turf grass or pools were new ideas, property managers wouldn’t want you to include them in your design because they are high maintenance. But the market has demanded both of them for a long time and so it is necessary for the financial success of the project to make them work.
But the market is changing and developers and property management groups need to adapt. If maintenance were the only important consideration on a project, it would be rare to see any amenities. But that clearly is not the only issue. More important than maintenance is having a marketable property that can attract and retain tenants.
That’s not to say maintenance concerns are not valid. Just that they should never take first priority. Just as we have adapted to maintaining turf grass and swimming pools, we can learn how to take care of whatever amenities the market is demanding in order to provide a competitive product. Start each project with the expectation that your outdoor amenities will require maintenance and shift your focus to creating places where people want to be.
Accounting for Every “What If” Tenant Use Scenario
It’s wise to plan ahead and mitigate risk. However, when it comes to how tenants will use outdoor spaces, you really can’t plan for every contingency. Time and time again, people prove to be more creative than anticipated.
Since you can’t anticipate every eventuality, it can relieve some anxiety to address one or two specific concerns. But making decisions based on fear of one specific contingency doesn’t make sense. You could, for example, remove all the rock mulch from the planter beds just in case some rowdy kids decide to pick it up and throw it, only to have them dig up the soil and spread that all over the place.
Rather than making fear-based decisions based on one bad experience, make design choices based on positive, successful experiences. If you notice people love the cabanas at the pool at another project and they are always full, it’s clearly a great selling point. Make the popularity of an amenity your first thought and consider adding more cabanas on your next project.
You might think that the more amenities and features you offer mean a great risk for misuse, vandalism, or just higher maintenance costs. But here’s the truth. Boring spaces are more easily a target of tenant misuse. If you provide features that people love to use, they are less likely to spend their time vandalizing the property. And, when your amenities are constantly full of people, you have some built-in surveillance that will automatically discourage inappropriate use.
The Bottom Line: Include Amenities Tenants Want
As a developer you will hear legitimate concerns from property management regarding maintenance and liability. But these concerns shouldn’t put the kibosh on creative ideas. Real professionals will find a solution for a specific design feature, not outlaw it because of “what if” scenarios.
Your biggest concern should be wasting money and effort on a space where no one wants to be.