A half-dozen tween girls got off their school bus at Seagrass Apartments. But instead of going home, the chatty group tumbled into the clubhouse, backpacks trailing.
They formed a line at the Keurig, where each made a cup of hot cocoa. It was a few weeks before Christmas and they eyed a snack tray nearby filled with heart-shaped candy canes.
In just a few hours, the work crowd would follow. Some of them would hit Seagrass’s 24-hour gym, with its dozen cardio machines, complete lineup of isometric equipment and full set of free weights.
It’s a facility that has become the social focus of the community, said Crystal Carswell, Seagrass property manager.
“You can replace your regular gym membership with this,” she said.
Master-planned communities have wowed their home-seeking audiences over the past decade with country-club size community centers and theme-park style amenities.
Now Jacksonville’s top apartments are following suit, with features more commonly seen at a luxury vacation hotel than in a rental complex.
The standard fare of a pool, green area and sometimes a workout room is being eclipsed by fully equipped gyms, Vegas-style pools, dog parks, piano bars, movie rooms, pet-washing stations, basketball courts and outdoor kitchens.
Smaller apartments, larger gathering spaces
It’s a trend that began in Europe, spread to America and has hit Jacksonville in the past two or three years, said Brian Moulder, CBRE senior vice president for multifamily.
“Everybody that’s building an apartment now — the next guy wants to outdo the last guy,” he said.
There’s also been a massive shift toward smaller rental units, as the emphasis turns to the amenities. With most of the properties built today, if they have three-bedroom apartments at all, they make up less than 10 percent of inventory, Moulder said.
Before, granite countertops, new stainless steel appliances and tiled bathrooms were the differentiators that drove tenants to the doorsteps. Now, everybody has them.
“You can do some things here and there on the interior, but people don’t really care as much anymore where they sleep,” Moulder said. “Amenities are much more important now than what kind of units you offer.”
Now standard: Full gyms, Vegas-style pools, dog parks
The first must in today’s apartment is a new state-of-the-art gym, Moulder said. It doesn’t have to be massive, but it should be pleasant and equipped with everything residents need.
Cardio equipment and dumbbells are a given, but some gyms have yoga rooms and spinning class rooms. The Uptown at St. Johns Apartments offers these with a split-level layout.
Elaborate Vegas-style pools also are huge now.
“It’s especially true here in Florida, where on the weekends, everybody spends the biggest portion of their time in and around the pool,” Moulder said.
One example is the Cabana Club at Baymeadows Road and Interstate 295, where a winding palm-landscaped pool features a water spray at one end and a lap pool at the other. The complex’s special events — ice cream socials, Hawaiian luaus and movie nights — are held on the pool deck.
Another must is a dog park. Eighty percent of tenants today have a pet, Moulder said, and it’s typically a dog.
“It’s much more common for them to have a dog than children,” he said.
Tenants today shop, not only for where they are going to live, but for where their pet will live.
Outgunning the competition
Beyond pets, pools and gyms, though, apartments offer amenities that give each community its own character.
Developer Gabe Bove, owner of the award-winning 5 Thousand Town at the St. Johns Town Center, built plenty of wow factors into his mid-rise apartment: A luxury pool, fitness center, dog park, pet spa, music cafe and car-detailing station.
But the amenity that sets his complex apart the most, he said, is the rooftop lounge with its soft seating, speakers and dual fire pits.
It’s a place to retreat to and still be part of the surrounding neighborhood. Tenants watched Downtown’s Fourth of July fireworks there.
The lounge is a setup act, though, for what Bove called 5 Thousand Town’s biggest amenity — the St. Johns Town Center, which lies right outside its doorstep.
“It’s what attracted us to that location in the first place,” he said. “The shopping district, restaurants and social life is right there.”
It gives 5 Thousand Town an experience that few competitors can offer, the feeling of an urban experience while living in suburbia.
Opened in September 2013, 5 Thousand Town has attracted not only young professionals, but also empty nesters and retirees, Bove said.
“There’s definitely a flight to rental communities,” Bove said. “A lot of folks nationally are questioning whether having all of their equity in a home is the right thing to do.”
Renting has become a long-term lifestyle
Bove isn’t wrong, said Moulder. It’s not just millennials who are heading to apartments in droves, but baby boomers and seniors looking to escape the burden of a house. There are more generations in apartments today and they are staying longer.
Leases used to see heavy turnover after a year, with virtually no tenant staying past two years.
Now tenants are staying in apartments three, four and five years.
“The American dream has shifted a little bit,” Moulder said. “I don’t think owning a home is at the top of the list anymore. People don’t want to make that sort of long-term commitment anymore.”
Apartments are filling the gap with great amenities that offer a sense of community, he said.
And, owners are racing to see who can find the best ones — those that will keep tenants in place for the long term.
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