Friendship is the Amenity
Patrick Sisson's Curbed article, "In the apartment amenity arms race, service and technology win out" exemplifies the adolescence of the burgeoning world of luxury apartment design. Like teenagers, these buildings want so badly to be recognized as unique that they're willing to try anything. And at first it works - they have a tree house! Or a hallway inspired by the move 2001! - but just like with real people the best way to define your identity is not to cover yourself in bells and whistles but to express your values through action.
This quote below demonstrates the trap developers fall into.
"The top two ways to separate yourself in a market that’s seen so much activity is adding an infusion of technology, and giving your residence some kind of identity,” says Shauntá Bruner, a senior associate with Delta Associates, a commercial real estate research firm. “Everybody has a rooftop grilling area or a dog park. Successful developers need to create things that tell a story and tie together the community.” Bruner says that this boils down to better tech and more services.
Bruner starts out on the right track (give your building an identity and have it tell a story) but then delivers a record scratch at the end: how do better tech and more services build an identity or tell a story? While it’s conceivable that a certain suite of amenities may attract like-minded tenants, amenities – especially tech-based ones – obsolesce quickly, and their lack of staying power translates into an inability to tell any sort of cohesive story or to tie together a community.
Later, the piece dives into what I think is the heart of the matter, which is that developers and apartment managers haven’t yet mastered the art of building communities in apartment buildings. Cities are both notorious and adored for their anonymity and countering that prevailing mindset is a massive challenge. As Bruner says, they have to teach people how to make friends within their own building. So instead of offering just yoga studios, they’re supply actual yoga teachers.
KIN, the arm of Tishman Speyer launched in partnership with co-living company Common, is wagering that the best way to goad residents into making friends is through the sharing economy. It's novel to see the market used as a tool to seed community. Capitalism is good for many things, but it hasn't exactly earned its stars as a uniting factor. Can it work? This is how KIN envisions it playing out: say you need a babysitter and another family in the building also needs a babysitter on the same night. Through their concierge, you can arrange to share the babysitter, thus decreasing your cost, and possibly meeting a friend in the process.
The challenge is that in this scenario, the actions used as the basis of friendship formation - finding a babysitter - aren't particularly meaningful. If developers want to create buildings with identity, then what they're really after is creating meaningful experiences for their residences and tying those experiences to the building. This is, obviously, a much more complicated task than selecting from a menu of hot new amenities.
They should steal a page from religion’s playbook. There's a reason religious congregations, with their traditions and ability to house lifecycle events, have historically offered such a successful and stable platform for community growth. Proximity and cost-sharing does not have the same heft.
You have to ask yourself: how often have you become close friends with the person you run into at the mailbox or with whom you share a dog-walker? Proximity does breed attraction, as the saying goes, but if you're looking to seed durable relationships then you'd be better served if the shared activity itself had some meaning beyond time- and cost-savings. If this is the direction we are moving in - where we will be increasingly moving into high rises and will use them as our community-defining spaces - then if we want those communities to be substantial we will need more intentionality around the seeding actions.
KIN would be wise to design their community building not just around everyday resource sharing, but also around low-level lifecycle events - moments that encourage us to think about the passage of time or our roles in the community. It sounds far-fetched, but it’s not. Building managers take on a vastly more significant role in this world, becoming not just part hotel concierge, but, as crazy as it sounds, part quasi-clergy as well. They could leverage their building’s open spaces to host preschool graduations or school plays so that residents associate their spaces, and the faces they see in them, with moments in their lives that have real meaning. Because it's at those moments that people are present and open to making stronger connections.
And from a real estate value prospective, a building that creates actual community becomes more valuable, because while the tech amenities look great today, they look passé within two years. Friendships and community, however, do not.