Luxury Developers Ramp Up Virtual Offerings for Stir-Crazy Renters

With amenity spaces off limits, lifestyle directors and amenity-service companies are planning virtual classes, workshops and online meet-and-greets to fill the void amid coronavirus

A Date Night dinner demo was in full swing one recent Friday at 525 West 52nd Street, a luxury rental building in Manhattan.

Peter Sheehan, resident experience manager for the 392-unit complex, where rents range from $3,500 to $9,000, greeted residents as they arrived. Then he introduced the head chef from a boutique cooking school who would be teaching them how to prepare handmade ravioli with brown butter and sage.

“We’re just trying to get people engaged and connected, and hopefully doing some good cooking,” said Mr. Sheehan, a 36-year-old former hotelier. “I’ve got my dough wrapped up and my wine is flowing.”

But unlike the many events Mr. Sheehan hosted in the building in the pre-Covid-19 past—whiskey tastings, poker nights, concerts by subway musicians—this Date Night was virtual. The chef, 35 residents and Mr. Sheehan were each in their own kitchens connecting via Zoom, the videoconferencing service.

With the novel coronavirus and strict social-distancing mandates confining New York City residents to their apartments, Mr. Sheehan’s job—keeping his residents connected through a steady diet of events, activities and treats—has gotten a lot more challenging. When they are not planning virtual events, social directors like Mr. Sheehan have become a lifeline for stir-crazy renters, offering tips on which local stores have fresh fruit and short lines, and hooking up online activities for children.

“It helps them navigate trickier times, understanding that there are people here supporting them,” Mr. Sheehan said of the renters.

That Friday morning, he had set out white bags of neatly packaged ingredients in the lobby, tagged with the apartment numbers of residents who nabbed, free of charge, the 35 spots in the limited workshop. Before the lesson began, he checked in with Ken Connors, head chef of City Cooking West End, to make sure the chef’s webcams had good angles on his butcher block and stove.

Even before the pandemic, New York City’s luxury rental buildings had been going beyond fitness centers and plush lounges to offer ambitious lifestyle programs: monthly mixers, book clubs, baby boogie classes, and jaunts to museums and galleries.

For a developer with a high-price building to lease out, it was no longer enough to have a rooftop terrace, you had to have a stargazing party on that terrace with a guest astronomer and catered s’mores.

Although many developers work with amenity-service companies, others have installed in-house lifestyle directors like Mr. Sheehan—a hip reboot of Julie the cruise director from “The Love Boat,” with a bro beard.   

“Peter has been the friendly face of the building, checking in just to say, ‘Hi’ or ‘Here’s something for the kids,’ or a [virtual] exercise class, or ‘If you’re feeling alone, here is counseling they’re offering [through a Zoom workshop],’ ” said Dean Loxton, 45, a filmmaker. He lives at 525 West 52nd Street with his husband and 18-month-old daughter, Maya, in a two-bedroom apartment they rent for $8,200 a month.

Although he has his own office in the building, Mr. Sheehan is employed by LIVunLtd, an “amenity space-management and activation” company that provides a range of services to about 200 residential buildings in New York City and New Jersey—64 of which have dedicated on-site coordinators.

Thea Wittich, left, co-founder of Axiom Amenities, with amenities associate Yamilex Chavez at 50 West, a Manhattan luxury rental building.

Since the pandemic hit, LIVunLtd has developed a roster of a la carte virtual events: live-streamed yoga and Pilates classes, workshops on perfume-blending and truffle-making, and online meet-and-greets with actors from shuttered Broadway shows such as “Wicked” and “Hamilton.”

Before the pandemic, 525 West 52nd Street’s developer, Taconic Partners, was spending $50,000 to $100,000 a year on amenities programming, according to Vice President Andrew Schwartz.

Residents of the building, which opened in 2017, get access to its club programs for a monthly fee of $85, since suspended. The building’s library, fitness center, golf simulator lounge and other amenity spaces have all closed, but Mr. Sheehan is still coming in several days a week.

In mid-March, Waterline Square, a three-tower complex on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with 916 rental apartments priced from $5,230 to $35,000, was days away from opening its Waterline Club: a 100,000-square-foot amenity space with an indoor tennis court, 30-foot rock-climbing wall, bowling alley and recording studio.

“We had a robust calendar of activities, with more than 25 events planned,” said Kelly Sullivan, lifestyle director for Waterline Square, which opened last September.

Kelly Sullivan, lifestyle director for Waterline Square, creates activities for residents of the luxury complex that target various age groups.

When the pandemic shut that down, Ms. Sullivan shifted gears. “We want to give people that sense of community they’re not getting,” she said.

She asked Waterline Club fitness instructors to begin streaming their classes live on the complex’s Instagram feed, clad in club-branded baseball caps and T-shirts. (She has since provided microphones and tripods to improve sound quality.)

Weekly online events targeted different ages. Children were invited to a Zoom puppet show; adults got a Cinco de Mayo mixology class and a virtual comedy night with local talent.

Brian Feinstein, 47, a composer who was in the midst of adapting the “The Bad News Bears” for Broadway when the pandemic hit, lives in a one-bedroom apartment at Waterline Square. He participated in the comedy night and a Zoom workshop on stress-reduction led by a psychology professor.

Ms. Sullivan boxes Champagne and flutes as gifts for new residents.

“He spoke about meditation and how those of us who are carb-loading can be more mindful with food,” said Mr. Feinstein, who got his one-bedroom, ordinarily listed for about $8,250, at a reduced rate through the city’s affordable-housing lottery. “To have these events and be able to see them on the calendar is great. It gives a sense of structure.”

Other lifestyle directors are going beyond virtual events to provide some hands-on support for their residents.

“If we know they have a birthday coming up, we’ve been decorating residents’ doors with streamers and balloons,” said Thea Wittich, co-founder with her husband, Michael Wittich, 40, of Axiom Amenities. They oversee the amenities program at 50 West, a 186-unit tower in Manhattan’s Financial District.

“We’re doing one for a resident who is graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, in her school colors,” she said of the decorated doors.

Before the pandemic, Ms. Wittich, a 33-year-old former personal trainer, hosted three to five free events a month for 50 West residents, who pay between $6,200 and $65,000 a month for rental units (the building is roughly split between rentals and condos).

The building has a full-floor fitness center and an entertainment floor with its own theater, both of which are now closed. But its team of three full-time amenity staffers have remained on site throughout the pandemic.

From Mackenzie Gleason, head bartender at The Wayland, for a mixology class at 525 West 52nd Street:

1½ tablespoons lime juice
½ tablespoon fresh ginger juice (add more for a nice kick)
2 oz. vodka
½ oz. club soda
Combine all ingredients in a shaker, except for the club soda. Give a quick shake with a few ice cubes.

Strain the cocktail into an iced glass and add club soda.

Garnish with a lime wedge and candied ginger.

For more fizz, add another half-ounce of club soda, and ½ oz. less vodka.

“There is this vision that you lay off your amenity people in a pandemic, but they have responded to this in a very strong way,” said Seth Coston, director of residential operations for Time Equities, the developer of 50 West.

Along with setting up a Zoom schedule of boot camp and yoga classes, the couple put together home-fitness kits with yoga mats, rollers and bands, and then delivered them, free of charge, to any resident who wanted one.

They also started a weekly program for children, dropping off craft kits and snack packs outside residents’ doors. “We do educational packets with STEM activities. They can build things with Popsicle sticks. We try to make it time-consuming,” Ms. Wittich said, adding that a recent papier-mâché craft didn’t get many takers: “No one was up for that mess in their house.”

She also puts out a daily newsletter with recipes and brain-teasers.

“Whoever answered the most questions correctly won a salmon meal kit and we won. My husband and I are kind of geeky, so we’re looking forward to the next one,” said Stephanie Sun, 36, an e-commerce manager for Walmart who lives with her husband and 3-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom apartment they bought in 2017, for a price she didn’t disclose. Comparable rental apartments at 50 West cost about $13,000 a month.

Thea and Michael Wittich themselves live in a building with no amenities three blocks from a city hospital.

“We are very fortunate. A lot of people are very sick,” Ms. Wittich said. “It has been wonderful for us to take [our] creativity and fine-tune it so people don’t feel alone.”

What does it take to be the lifestyle director for a high-price luxury building in New York City?

“You need a unicorn for this job,” said Michael Fazio, co-founder and chief creative officer of LIVunLtd. “You’re a host, you’re a curator, you’re a customer service manager, you’re a counselor.”

Mr. Fazio, once a concierge at Manhattan’s Intercontinental Barclay Hotel, said that though a hospitality background is a plus, he rarely recruits people from the hotel industry. Instead, his team scouts out potential lifestyle directors from the Actors’ Equity Association, design schools such as Parsons and Fashion Institute of Technology, and even while shopping or dining out. “When I go to a nice store or a restaurant and there’s someone who just has the DNA, I tell them about what we do,” Mr. Fazio said.

A two-week basic training follows, in which the raw recruit learns everything from how to deal with a broken treadmill and a no-show caterer to how to greet residents at the monthly mixer. “We don’t ask, ‘Are you unmarried?’ ” said Mr. Fazio.. He shared a few of his golden rules for lifestyle directors:

• Be friendly, but not a best friend. “We have to be very careful,” he said. “People have invited my staff to dinner parties and to their weekend homes in the Hamptons. We can’t do that.” When fielding a tricky invitation, he advises lifestyle directors to say, “I would love to, but it’s company policy that I can only be here working.”

• Beware the man bun. “Even though it’s very fashionable for men to have facial hair, there are certain resident populations where it might not depict the mood,” Mr. Fazio said. “But if it’s a trendy Brooklyn building with a lot of creatives, there’s no problem if you have an armful of tattoos and a big beard and a ponytail.”

• Be a team player. “Never commiserate with residents about problems in the building. It could be the absolute worst, nearly negligent property manager, but you never say, ‘Yeah, I know, he’s such a moron.’ Instead, it’s ‘I’m so sorry you feel that way, let me report that.’ ”

• No drinking on the job. “We’re not the guests, we’re the party-starter. Even if we’re raising a glass with the residents, we need to stay focused and remember all the golden rules, which could slip our mind.”

NEW YORK SAN FRANCISCO AMENITIES The Ultimate Amenity: Connecting with Nature in an Urban Setting

Numerous studies link spending time outdoors and in nature with improved mental and physical health. Yet, with more than 80% of Americans living in urban areas, finding a place to connect with the sky, the sun and greenery can be challenging. Landscaped rooftops, living walls, tranquil gardens and atriums are increasingly popular ways for developers to create room for nature in urban buildings. Those spaces became even more highly prized when stay-at-home guidelines were implemented and city residents were less able to escape to parks, beaches and vacation destinations.

“A connection to nature is vital to everyone’s health and wellbeing,” said Randy Shortridge, cofounder of [au]workshop and architect ofThe Residences at Mandarin Oriental in Honolulu. “People need sunlight and value the long view, the ability to see the horizon. Landscaping stimulates all the senses, too.”

At the Residences at Mandarin Oriental in Honolulu, the 21-floor residential lobby will mostly be open air, although it can be closed during a storm, Mr. Shortridge said. The residences, which are anticipated to be ready for residents by mid-2023, are priced from $2 million to $35 million. Each condo has private outdoor space in addition to the shared rooftop.

“The rooftop garden has been designed so that the boundary between indoor and outdoor space dissolves,” he said. “The sky garden cantilevers out from the tower towards the setting sun and the reflecting pool faces the sunset.”

Green space and natural light are vital, especially in urban areas like New York City, said Andrew Schwartz, vice president of Taconic Partners, developer of luxury apartments at 525 W. 52 St. and 311 W. 42 St in Manhattan.

Courtesy of 525 West 52nd St.

“We live in a concrete jungle and when people are paying top dollar to live somewhere, they expect to have access to some outdoor space,” Mr. Schwartz said.

At 525, nature is evident in the lobby, where an atrium open to the sky includes a garden and water feature.

“Residents can look out at the rain or snow or sunlight on their way to the elevator,” Mr. Schwartz said. “At 525 we also have a landscaped outdoor deck in the middle of the building with seating and outdoor games. We’ll have something similar at 42 St. but it will be more like a secret garden design with pathways and quiet spaces.”

Both buildings will have rooftop decks for looking at the view and sunbathing. Rents at 525 range from $3,643 for a studio to $6,386 for a two-bedroom apartment. Some apartments also have private balconies.

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“Several of my international projects exemplify my core design philosophy, known as ‘Shanshui City,’ which is the idea that humans and nature should be more emotionally connected, especially in high-density cities,” said Ma Yansong, founder of MAD Architects in Beijing and Los Angeles and the architect of Gardenhouse in Beverly Hills, California. “The vision for Gardenhouse is to provide inhabitants with the conveniences of modern city living while offering them a place where they can live in harmony with nature.”

Mr. Yansong was inspired by the natural beauty of the Hollywood hills and Beverly Hills.

Courtyard garden of the Gardenhouse in Beverly Hills, California.Palisades

“We designed a ‘green hill’ wrapped in a living wall that connects with its surroundings that has become an essential part of the architectural design,” he said. “Gardenhouse features the largest living wall in the U.S. The vertical living wall wraps around ‘the hill’ and includes drought-tolerant succulents and vines that are native to the area. The windows of each dwelling open up onto the living green wall, giving residents the feeling that they are living in a hillside village rather than a metropolitan city.”

The residences in the Gardenhouse, which include one-level condos, two-story penthouses and a trio of row houses, are priced from $3.7 million. Residents are anticipated to move into the Gardenhouse in summer 2020.

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Evolving Approach to Green Space in Residential Developments

Seamless indoor-outdoor living connected with walls of glass, flush surfaces and similar materials have been popular for years, but until recently, those spaces were usually only available in single-family homes, said Mark Schwettmann, a director at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the architect for One Steuart Lane, a waterfront condo in San Francisco that is anticipated to be complete in early 2021.

“Advances in structural design, materials, building codes and enclosure design have enabled high rises to offer spacious outdoor space that fulfills this same desire of living inside and outside at once,” Mr. Schwettmann said. “At One Steuart Lane, we have indoor-outdoor great rooms with a fully operable glass facade, creating over 2,000 square feet” of indoor-outdoor living.

At One Steuart Lane, when the glass walls are open, the great rooms in each condo will have more than 2,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor living space.

The indoor-outdoor living space at One Steuart Lane, a luxury condo development in San Francisco.Binyan Studios

The building’s 40-foot wraparound terraces will be divided by freestanding living walls that create privacy and vertical gardens, Mr. Schwettmann said. The building itself has a minimalist design to serve as a frame for the expansive views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

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“The residences at One Steuart Lane draw from a singular inspiration: the bay’s waterfront,” said John Pallante, managing director of Polaris Pacific, the sales and marketing team for One Steuart Lane. “Each residence was meticulously and thoughtfully designed to optimize its unrivaled location and deliver a premier indoor/outdoor high-rise living experience. The living walls are a natural connection between the city and nature.”

The 120 condos at One Steuart Lane are priced from $1.6 million. A communal terrace on the second level of the 20-story tower will provide additional greenery as well as unobstructed views of the bay and the bridge.

In Beverly Hills, the Gardenhouse design provides green space for residents and serves as a new landmark of greenery along Wilshire Boulelvard.

“The interior courtyard is a hidden gem of lush garden that also weaves itself between the residences,” Mr. Yansong said. “Recycled water will be used to keep the living wall plants and greenery lush, while also acting as a cooling system that maintains comfortable interior temperatures.”

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The Gardenhouse includes a ground-level water feature.

“Providing a visual and auditory experience for inhabitants, the water feature can be accessed by residents,” Mr. Yansong said. “It transports them away from the city and into a green, calm and tranquil atmosphere.”

Even just a few years ago landscape design was more sterile and meant to cover things up or to look at from a distance, Mr. Shortridge said.

“Today, we view outdoor space as an opportunity to relax, to sit in the shade and enjoy dappled light,” he said. “At the Mandarin Oriental, every condo has glass walls that open onto a lanai, so every resident has private space as well as shared green space on the roof.”

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Challenges of Designing Outdoor Space in Urban Environments

At each of these developments, extensive outdoor space constrains the number of residences and carries added cost.

“It’s not out of the question for developers to spend up to $1 million on landscaping installation at new properties and over $100,000 on landscaping design fees,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Ongoing maintenance can range anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 annually depending on the landscaping type and quantity.”

On the other hand, those green amenities mean that renters and buyers are willing to pay higher prices.

Exterior view of the Gardenhouse in Beverly Hills, California.Palisades

“The challenge of incorporating green space in urban development is always the long-term care required to ensure the landscape is healthy and thrives in a dense vertical high rise,” Mr. Pallante said.

In Hawaii, plants grow vigorously and don’t have a resting period as they do in other climates, so it is even more important to choose plants that can be pruned yet look natural, said Mr. Shortridge.

Such careful planning for green amenities results in a more tranquil home environment for residents, even in a city environment.

Open Letter From Leaders of the Partnership for New York City

The business community shares the outrage of our fellow New Yorkers over continued racial injustice in America, reflected in the needless killing of George Floyd and, more broadly, the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color. As employers and business leaders, we commit to help address conditions that have led to these tragic outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a further reminder of significant shortcomings in our health, education and economic systems. These shortcomings have hit communities of color in our city disproportionately hard. This experience has shown once again the vital role these communities play in every aspect of our city, including as healthcare providers and other essential workers.

Within our companies and publicly, we are reasserting our commitments to diversity and inclusion among our boards, executive leadership and our entire workforce. As members of the Partnership for New York City, we are supporting programs to ensure that the city’s public school students gain the skills and career opportunities required to achieve economic equality and helping racially diverse entrepreneurs and small businesses survive and rehire workers as quickly as possible.

Throughout the crisis, we have extended philanthropic support to hospitals, food pantries, cash relief programs, social service organizations and many other charities. But no amount of philanthropy can make up for the divisions in American society that the pandemic has exposed and deepened.

By speaking out, we intend to send a message of hope to young New Yorkers who are acting out their frustration, fears and anger on the city streets. Let’s work together to achieve racial equality and a safe, law-abiding society.

New York has prided itself on being the world’s most open and inclusive city, attracting top talent from everywhere to build lives, careers and businesses here. But these opportunities have not been equally accessible to young people of color who have grown up and attended school in our poorest neighborhoods. In our post-pandemic city, that must change, and we are committed to help make that happen.


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James A. Rosenthal, Chief Executive Officer, BlueVoyant

Evan Roth, Co-CEO, BBR Partners, LLC

Michael I. Roth, Chairman & CEO, Interpublic Group

Steven Roth, Chairman & CEO, Vornado Realty Trust

Steven Rubenstein, President, Rubenstein Communications, Inc.

Mitchell E. Rudin, President, Savills Inc.

William C. Rudin, Co-Chairman & CEO, Rudin Management Company, Inc.

Kevin P. Ryan, Founder & CEO, AlleyCorp

Tim Ryan, U.S. Chair and Senior Partner, PwC

Faiza Saeed, Presiding Partner, Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP

Scott Salmirs, President & CEO, ABM Industries Inc.

Kathleen Savio, Chief Executive Officer, Zurich North America

Charles W. Scharf, President & CEO, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.

Michael Schmidtberger, Partner & Chair of the Executive Committee, Sidley Austin LLP

Alan D. Schnitzer, Chairman & CEO, The Travelers Companies, Inc.

Alan D. Schwartz, Executive Chairman, Guggenheim Partners, LLC

Stephen A. Schwarzman, Chairman, CEO & Co-Founder, Blackstone

Suzanne Shank, President & CEO and Christopher J. Williams, Chairman, Siebert Williams Shank & Co., LLC

Tarek Sherif, Chairman & CEO, Medidata Solutions, Inc.

Jonathan Silvan, Chief Executive Officer, Global Strategy Group, LLC

Adam Silver, Commissioner, National Basketball Association

Joshua Silverman, Chief Executive Officer, Etsy, Inc.

Michael Slocum, President, Commercial Banking, Capital One

Rob Speyer, President & CEO, Tishman Speyer

Stephen Squeri, Chairman & CEO, American Express Company

Robert K. Steel, Partner, Perella Weinberg Partners LP

Douglas C. Steiner, Chairman, Steiner Studios

Steven R. Swartz, President & CEO, Hearst

Julie Sweet, Chief Executive Officer, Accenture and Jimmy Etheredge, Chief Executive Officer, Accenture North America

Paul J. Taubman, Chairman & CEO, PJT Partners Inc.

Teiji Teramoto, Chairman & CEO, Mizuho Americas

Owen D. Thomas, Chief Executive Officer, Boston Properties

Mary Ann Tighe, Chief Executive Officer, NY Tri-State Region, CBRE, Inc.

James S. Tisch, President & CEO, Loews Corporation

Paul Todd, Chief Executive Officer, GLG

William B. Tyree, Managing Partner, Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.

Joseph Ucuzoglu, Chief Executive Officer, Deloitte

Sayu Ueno, President & CEO, Mitsui & Co. (U.S.A.), Inc.

Robert Vecchio, Chief Executive Officer, LPI, Inc.

Ellis Verdi, President, DeVito/Verdi

James R. Wacht, President, Lee & Associates NYC

George H. Walker, Chairman & CEO, Neuberger Berman Group LLC

Pamela S. Wasserstein, President, Vox Media

Charles Weinstein, Chief Executive Officer, EisnerAmper LLP

David Winter, Co-Chief Executive Officer, Standard Industries Inc.

Robert Wolf, Chief Executive Officer, 32 Advisors LLC

Laila J. Worrell, Chief Executive Officer, Altran Americas

Kathryn S. Wylde, President & CEO, Partnership for New York City

Tim Zagat, Co-Founder, Zagat

David M. Zaslav, President & CEO, Discovery, Inc.

Jide Zeitlin, Chairman & CEO, Tapestry, Inc.

Strauss Zelnick, Partner, ZMC

John Zimmer, Co-Founder & President and Logan Green, Co-Founder & CEO, Lyft