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In New York’s cutthroat residential market, experiences are the new must-have amenity

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Perks like a fitness room and a lounge are no longer enough to lure prospective tenants

Urby Staten Island offers residents experiential perks like cooking classes.
Max Touhey

In New York City’s increasingly crowded residential marketplace, where developers are trying all manner of attention-grabbing tactics to stand out (steampunk costumes, nude painted models, you get the idea), it’s inevitable that amenities would also evolve.

Once, it was enough for a development to offer the bare minimum in terms of perks: a common area where residents could hang out, a fitness room with a few treadmills, and maybe—if you were really lucky—some outdoor space. But that’s not the case anymore, especially when you consider the fact that there are more high-end, perk-packed residential projects hitting the market in every corner of the city.

“In a housing market where there is a large amount of competition as new product continues to enter the fray, it is incumbent on the developer to differentiate in any way,” says Jonathan Miller, CEO of real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “Getting more eyeballs on the property and protecting the price in a crowded market is all that matters.”

But there are already a plethora of buildings offering ostentatious, attention-grabbing perks—IMAX theaters, private jet rentals, your own “jam room,” and the like—so what’s the next phase of the residential amenity? Put simply, experiences: a slew of developers have begun offering residents of their buildings access to a host of events and ventures that are more experiential—and, in some cases, more tied to the communities in which they’re building.

A rendering of 550 Vanderbilt’s rooftop garden, which will be tended in collaboration with Prospect Heights restaurant Olmsted.
VUW Studios

That sense of connection to the surrounding neighborhood was what inspired Greenland Forest City Partners for its recently announced perks at 550 Vanderbilt, the first condo within the Pacific Park megaproject. The developer has partnered with local businesses, including buzzy small-plates restaurant Olmsted and Vanderbilt Wine Merchants, to offer perks to its residents as part of what it’s dubbed the Neighborhood Partner Program.

In addition to taking over a plot of land at a communal outdoor garden on the building’s eighth floor, Olmsted’s chefs will teach gardening classes for those who’ve ponied up for the privilege of living there. The wine shop, meanwhile, will have an on-demand sommelier who can work with residents on private parties and other events.

“You always have to look right outside your door” when it comes to extras for residents, notes Ashley Cotton, Forest City’s executive vice president of external affairs. Cotton says that being part of the Prospect Heights community is one of the reasons why people are buying in Pacific Park, so offering perks that showcase what local businesses have to offer is a win-win. “That’s why you build in great neighborhoods, right? Because they’re full of great people.”

That idea of locality also inspired developer DDG for one of its amenity offerings at The Standish, its anticipated 29-unit condo conversion within Brooklyn Heights’s former Standish Arms hotel. Residents of the building will have access to a “boat valet,” through the One15 Brooklyn Marina in Brooklyn Bridge Park, who can arrange for sailing lessons and other “private boat experiences” along the East River.

But these more curated, experiential amenities aren’t just limited to pricey condos. Two Trees Management recently launched a program called “Apartment Stories,” for which it’s tapped so-called “influencers” to help promote its rental properties. According to Two Trees’s Brian Upbin, these residents will be “telling amazing stories from their homes and the community, and will be hosting special experiences open exclusively to our residents.” (The partners are also compensated, though what form that takes has not been disclosed.)

Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson launched the program at 300 Ashland, the company’s 379-unit tower in the Brooklyn Cultural District, with a series of Instagram photos documenting everything from her move into the building to her recent 21st birthday party. Two Trees has also tapped chef Seamus Mullen, who will be living at 60 Water Street in Dumbo, and singer-songwriter Abir for Mercedes House in Midtown. The specifics of the “experiences” that they may host haven’t been hammered out yet, but could include live performances or workshops, among other things. “We’ve never been afraid to try new things and this idea is different than anything that’s been done before,” says Upbin.

Two Trees’s program may be the first to promise renters access to “influencers,” but the developer has company when it comes to offering a bevy of community-building events. Ironstate’s Urby developments in Staten Island and Jersey City have particularly robust offerings; on Staten Island, there’s a chef-in-residence, Brendan Costello, who leads a variety of “Chef’s Tasting” sessions for residents. He’s taught folks everything from how to make sushi to how to craft the perfect cocktail, as well as private classes. At Jersey City Urby, meanwhile, there are workshops—like a “Make Your Own Bouquet Day”—that encourage residents to mingle, while also offering a learning experience.

Some developers are even working with companies who specialize in these sort of community-building, experience-driven activities. Taconic, for example, partnered with LIVunLtd (which describes its mission as “attracting new prospects while creating ongoing connections with existing residents, clients and guests”) to hire a “Director of Resident Experience” at its Hell’s Kitchen rental, 525W52. Their purpose? To create a “playlist of experiences,” per the developer, that could include anything from a film screening series to cooking classes in the building’s catering kitchen.

Co-living start-up Ollie hired a community manager for Kips Bay’s Carmel Place who serves a similar purpose: like a cruise director for the millennial set, they put together all manner of events and workshops for residents, ranging from Sunday brunch gatherings and yoga classes to a 1920s murder mystery party. It’s part of Ollie’s larger mission of “all-inclusive living”—you’re not just renting an apartment, but buying into a lifestyle.

And make no mistake, residents do pay for these amenities. Urby Staten Island’s rents, for example, are higher than the average for the borough—studios have rented for close to $2,000, though as Ironstate head David Barry previously noted, that price is “affordable to any Manhattan property with similar amenities.” Carmel Place has also received criticism for its high rents—a studio is currently renting for close to $3,000/month—which help subsidize the myriad perks that Ollie offers.

And ultimately, price is what makes or breaks an apartment for many New Yorkers—not necessarily the classes being offered or the cool Instagrammer living down the hall. As Miller notes, “It is really an attempt create value perception and therefore avoid reducing the asking price. But with expanding competition, price will remain a key amenity.”