(Multi)family matters: Navigating the intricacies of incorporating multifamily into mixed-use developments

Lori Bongiorno

By Lori Bongiorno and Dan Brogan, M+A Architects

As demand for high-quality mixed-use environments continues to grow, the specialized and diverse toolkit that an experienced architect brings to the table is extremely prized. That toolkit is especially valuable when it comes to multifamily residential—consistently one of the trickiest pieces to fit into the mixed-use puzzle.

Successfully blending multifamily in a commercial environment alongside restaurants and retail components can take a development to the proverbial next level. Elevating a place into a community, and creating the kind of social, commercial and experiential synergies that distinguish the most dynamic and successful mixed-use destinations.

Don Brogan

But understanding how to pull that off can be easier said than done. Navigating the intricacies of seamlessly incorporating multi-family into mixed use developments requires a nuanced understanding of everything from building code compliance to retail tenant expectations, successful balancing a wide range of design, demographic and functionality considerations. 

Balance

The big picture is a big deal: figuring out how to incorporate residential components in a way that adds value to the project without taking away valuable retail space. For owners and investors, the bottom line is the bottom line, and maximizing retail space is priority 1A. That said, residential that is sitting on an out-parcel with no meaningful connections to the rest of the project will not be the asset it can be. The goal should be a convenient location and access (with perhaps a dedicated entry) all without compromising the retail. Remember also that mixed-use is a broad category, including projects ranging from a single block of residential above retail, to larger, master-planned projects with a mix of components. 

Logistics

Among the most important factors to consider when incorporating multifamily elements into mixed-use developments are the essentials: logistics and technical considerations. If your project doesn’t work, it does not matter how good it looks or how many units you can rent in the first year. From a practical standpoint, thoughtful developers need to plan out all shafts and services to run below the residential, ensuring that retailers are accommodated without disrupting residents. Additionally, developers need to remember that building out the retail requires access to the roof in a manner that does not disrupt or inconvenience residential tenants. One helpful tip is to establish utilities in each potential retail space prior to final buildout and finishes­—enabling the retail tenant to easily tie in to them without demolishing completed construction. These technical considerations can be especially tricky where restaurants are concerned, and care must be taken throughout the planning and design process to accommodate all of the specialized ductwork and venting that restaurants require.

Parking

While parking certainly falls into the logistics category, it is such an important and complex topic when it comes to integrating different uses within a mixed-use project that it deserves its own discussion. Reserved, covered, residents-only parking is key, but delivering that can present a logistical/design challenge. Space can be at a premium, particularly with urban projects as sites are often very tight and the use of parking garages are sometimes necessary. But, keep in mind that adding parking garages under retail, office and residential creates an even more complicated building where the coordination of the building’s infrastructure becomes that much more important and critical. The best mixed-use projects strategically position parking resources and guide the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic to and from that parking in a way that does not compromise public parking or commercial avenues. So, how do you get the most bang for your buck and make the most of what is, at the end of the day, expensive space? Shared parking in the cases of office and residential parking is a key consideration and working with local jurisdictions is important to potentially reduce the required parking based on shared parking. Essentially, office tenants use parking spaces when residential tenants are not using those same parking spaces.

Design

From a design standpoint, all components need to be designed and built to the same high standards and design criteria. Developers need to recognize that the mixed-use development itself is one of the most powerful and appealing amenities, and should design with that in mind. Roof decks and balconies facing parks and public activated spaces are a great example. Owners and investors can often charge higher rents for premium park-facing units, or units with balconies, for example. Be creative: for units facing away from the experiential heart of the project, include pools, plantings and other compensatory assets. One of the trickiest balancing acts to pull off is to give residents the benefit of the project’s social and commercial energy without making it too intrusive. One solution is to give residents a private retreat. Thoughtful acoustic strategies with tenant positioning and carefully selected construction materials can also help, as can design restrictions such as not allowing retail tenants any signage above ground level (no large blade signs that would block residents’ views, for example).

Demographics

While owner preference, demographic studies, space constraints and other factors all play a role in determining what makes sense in terms of unit count and unit mix, the character of the residential component can and should vary based on who you are building for. Be mindful not just of your target audience, but also the broader marketplace context and the nature of the project itself. Residential that is designed to provide senior living options will have different design and marketing priorities than an apartment building located on a park and aimed at active young professionals. And with student housing, it’s smart to pay attention to branding and other graphic elements. While some developers may be able to integrate different types of housing to appeal to as broad a range of people as possible, there is a definite trend toward smaller unit sizes, especially in urban areas. Micro-apartments with well-appointed common/community spaces tend to appeal to the influential and fast-growing Millennial demographic, as do buildings packed with integrated technology and convenient features like communal chef’s kitchens and dedicated visitors’ units.

Amenities

Strategies continue to evolve for introducing multifamily amenities into residential areas in mixed-use projects. The initial instinct on the part of the developer may be to pack in as many luxury amenities, as possible. That approach has begun to shift, however, as it becomes clear that many high-end amenities are underutilized. Developers need to be more strategic about what amenities to include, understanding what will sell the apartment and what will be of meaningful value to the residents. Part of making those decisions means getting smarter about understanding what is and isn’t working in other projects, and part of it is understanding the importance of context. That context can be regional (for example: a pool isn’t necessary in Columbus, but it’s virtually a prerequisite in Florida) or it can be local: dictated by the project and the surrounding community. For example, by leasing commercial space to fitness-oriented businesses (right outside your residents’ front door), you won’t need a massive in-house fitness facility.

Prioritization

Finally, recognize that leasing agents and retailers are going to have very different priorities from those folks managing the residential component. One of the little-discussed secrets of mixed-use development is that most projects that bill themselves as mixed-use really do “lean” one way or the other. One might be a residential project with some retail accents, and another might be a retail, dining and entertainment project with some residential included. Successful developers know that some balance and accommodation is important, but they also recognize the importance of keeping the needs of the primary use top of mind.

Lori Bongiorno is principal and commercial studio director at M+A Architects, a Columbus, Ohio-based architecture firm. Don Brogan is residential studio director at the firm.

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