Can Developers Create Authenticity?

How do developers create authenticity and community? It is a big question, and increasingly important, since apartment vacancy won’t remain below 3% forever and apartment developer/owners will have to find ways to set their buildings apart from the competition and keep occupancy healthy in the long run.

Statue

Authenticity is one of many words used to describe great cities, including community, gritty, lively, and serendipity. In a January Financial Times essay, Edwin Heathcote says, “There is the thrill of serendipity, to wander from a tight, dark alley into a small square with a fountain.” This begs the question, can every developer create a dark alley and a small square with a fountain, and if they all did, would it still be authentic or serendipitous? Authenticity is subjective, of course, but there has to be some element of authenticity widely accepted by buyers and renters.

A colleague of mine recently pointed out that urban dwellers in Minneapolis have two options: single-family homes or apartments or condos in larger four- to five-story buildings. There is some truth to this statement. The city doesn’t have another distinctive form of architecture like rowhomes in Washington and Boston, for example, or three-flats like Chicago. A few high-rises exist downtown but don’t form a meaningful definition of the city’s fabric. One could argue older apartments in Uptown are a third choice, but I question that, while they may be authentic, most also lack updates like air conditioning and are not a long-term choice for most people. Some attention has been given to what the urban form of the city will be in future years and whether we will or even want to be known for the five story architecture common today. Is it authentic? Worse, is it authentically bad?

One answer to this question of authenticity lies in my personal preference for urban life. I for one have yet to find my ideal next step, non-single-family housing option (in Minneapolis). I’ve been in many apartment and condo units in Minneapolis and St. Paul that I’d live in, for the style, layout, view, etc. I’ve also identified neighborhoods in which I’d live, but these are few and far between and I haven’t found overlap between unit and location. I’d demand a Walkscore of 90 or greater, and while that exists in many places, within that walkshed there must be a full-service grocery store and fixed-rail transit of some kind. I’m not sure that exists in the Twin Cities (if it does, please tell me!). I’ve been to cities and stayed in vacation rentals that meet this criteria. Sadly, this means in 2013 my only option (in the Twin Cities) is to remain in a single-family home with nearby transit, a great neighborhood to be sure but not a 90 walkscore and no grocer within walking distance. Maybe by the time I’m an empty nester my dream location will exist.

I’m just one customer, but this does boil down to authenticity and community. Developers know they can attract Gen Y to hip urban locations, but what about those empty-nester-ish folks in a single-family home looking for an authentic multifamily option? They say, “I’d love to sell my single-family home and try apartment (or condo) living, but the place I want hasn’t been built yet.” What’s really more important to customers, amenities and features in the building itself or things outside the door? Is it management, design, a big enough storage space, the perfect kitchen, a lovely view, or the world outside the front door, down the sidewalk somewhere?

Is community and authenticity really possible for a developer to create without the perfect location? If not a developer, then who?

Even then, what is authentic? What is community?

Please voice your opinion. I value your insight and experience.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.


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7 Responses to Can Developers Create Authenticity?

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke September 19, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    While it’s nice, I’m not so interested in authenticity, particularly in an apartment building. Even a Starbucks or a McDonalds can be, in the right town, a vibrant and interesting place. I’m more interested in sociability.

    OTOH, doing everything we can to foster small businesses, and to make sure we have the kinds of retail spaces that are amenable to non-corporate entrepreneurs, is a big plus. I’ve always wondered why we don’t have a ‘keep the TC weird’ campaign, like in Austin and Portland. (Granted, there is the largely-quiet Metro Independent Business Association.)

  2. Janne September 19, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    As the long-term owner of an “older apartment in Uptown,” who has spent time getting to know her neighbors over the last 17 years, I’m surprised to hear you argue that, “while they may be authentic, most also lack updates like air conditioning and are not a long-term choice for most people.”

    How do you define “long-term?” And, does a renter who stays in a similar unit type in the same neighborhood, but moves as their housing needs change, count as long-term?

    If you’re talking 15 years, I might agree. However, I have several neighbors in those apartment buildings who have lived there for 5+ and even 10+ years — which is to say, longer than the homeowners on the back of my block.

    I also know some folks who over the course of 17 years moved between three different examples of those types of apartments as their household needs changed, but continued to live in “older apartments in Uptown” because they loved the architecture AND the neighborhood.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg September 19, 2013 at 11:47 am #

      Good point, Janne. I struggled with how to describe older apartments in Uptown. I generally mean older Uptown apartments don’t compete directly with new Uptown apartments. I do think pre-World War II Uptown apartments are authentic, and wonder in 25 or 50 years if they will still define “authentic Uptown” more than new buildings in the area. I suspect they may, but only time will tell!

  3. Alai September 19, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    1. Just about every house, building, business, etc. was once built by a developer of some sort.

    2. Something like “wander from a tight, dark alley into a small square with a fountain” happens, I think, not as the result of some carefully-thought-out plan, but the result of a “leftover” space which is adapted by the whoever owns it as best they see fit.

    In general, authenticity is what you get after a few decades. Ideally, the residents and local business people can adapt the spaces to fit their needs, so it helps when the lots are small and the rules are not onerous, so they have a high degree of control of their local space, and the freedom to do whatever they think is best.

  4. Cedar September 19, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    Funny, I always have thought of Minneapolis as a city of duplexes and triplexes! Certainly many of the city’s more urban neighborhoods are filled with this option.

    I think we’ve found our perfect option — a spacious three-bedroom apartment with balcony/porch in a building with three other units, each with its own floor. The location is ideal — highly walkable and served by multiple bus lines. We can walk to the lake, to our shopping, to the park, you name it. I prefer an older building, but honestly, if it came down to it, location remains our number one priority. The most attractive apartment or house holds little appeal if the location is wrong. And I don’t waste much time worrying about whether or not a place is sufficiently “authentic” – I’m more concerned about things like amenities within walking distance, safety, and public transportation. Luckily for us, our preferred Minneapolis neighborhoods also come with housing of the type we like and can afford (and is zoned for the school we want), so we haven’t had to make any difficult compromises. If anything, our compromises have been more about choice of city rather than anything within the city itself.

    As far as authenticity, unless the developer is building an entire neighborhood from the ground-up I figure that the serendipity will develop naturally. Different housing types and sizes serve different needs, and a range of needs and residents provide a suitably “authentic” neighborhood experience.

  5. Nathan September 20, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    “Authenticity” is a pretty hard term to nail down. After all, as Alai commented above, all these “authentic” places were built by developers in the last hundred years or so. If new places lack the kind materials and feel of older housing, it’s more of a reflection of the society in which they were built than anything else. I’d agree that most of what is built today, everywhere, lacks the quality of construction and materials that our older buildings have, and probably won’t age well, but I don’t think that doesn’t make them authentic. After all, they are a very faithful reflection of our society. Perhaps I’m focusing too much on my Mac dictionary’s second definition of the term:

    [i]authentic |ôˈθentik| (abbr.: auth.)
    adjective
    1 of undisputed origin; genuine : the letter is now accepted as an authentic document | authentic 14th-century furniture.
    • made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original : the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals | every detail of the movie was totally authentic.
    • based on facts; accurate or reliable : an authentic depiction of the situation.[/i]

    And what’s not authentic about single-family housing? I have a book from the ’40s that notes that MInneapolis is comprised overwhelmingly of single-family housing. It’s certainly old, and it’s certainly representative of Minneapolis and of the era of streetcar (sub)urbanism in which it was built.

  6. Tim Halbur September 24, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Authenticity is a valuable but secondary topic here, I’d say. The greater point, in my book, is the lack in quality and variety of options for multi-family housing. In Santa Rosa, California, where I grew up, the only (and I mean ONLY) option aside from single-family homes were the boxy, two-story apartment buildings that seem modeled after motels. Who would choose that, except out of poverty? We need to encourage more and better models for multifamily dwelling.