It was May 2015, and Carl Dranoff had barely even broken ground on One Riverside, a 22-story condo tower poised to bring 82 luxury residences to the Schuylkill River banks. Yet interest from potential buyers was growing, with units being reserved left and right. That’s about the time that broker Marianne Harris started to worry.
“It became apparent very quickly that the floor plans that we had, while we thought they were terrific, were generally not large enough for many people,” said Harris.
“Many people” being empty nesters who were looking to downsize from their Main Line mansions to smaller homes in the heart of Philly. Said Harris, “They can scale down, but they’re not scaling down to 1,200 square feet.”
These days, combining apartments or condominiums is a common occurrence in the New York real estate world, where extra square footage is a hot commodity among the city’s tiny apartments. But in Philadelphia, buying the apartment or condo next door has only recently caught on as empty nesters and baby boomers have started trading the ‘burbs for Center City.
It’s a trend that developer Tom Scannapieco began to consider after the opening of 1706 Rittenhouse in 2010. “Prior to the development of 1706 Rittenhouse, typical residential towers in Center City Philadelphia had between 80 to 140 residences and multiple unit types ranging from studios to three-bedrooms,” said Scannapieco. “Therefore, in order for buyers to achieve the square footage they were seeking, they were forced to combine units.”
At 1706 Rittenhouse, Scannapieco offered spacious 4,200-square-foot floor plans instead, eliminating the need to combine units. Yet he realized that what buyers were looking for in terms of square footage was a mixed bag. “Many high-end buyers did not need 4,300 square feet and others wanted more square footage.”
With his most recent condo project 500 Walnut in Society Hill, Scannapieco found a middle ground, offering a balance of 4,300-square-foot, full-floor residences as well as half-floor units. That resulted in the number of residences for sale shrinking from 38 to 34.
But combining units isn’t an easy task. It requires a lot of engineering and strategic planning (think plumbing, partitions, etc.) that makes it particularly difficult to maneuver in already-built and lived-in developments.
At the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton in Center City, combining condos—or what vice president of sales and marketing Gary Greenip calls “intertwining” units—it’s a bit more of a puzzle. The residential tower was built in 2006, just before the housing market crashed and long before residents were thinking about buying more real estate.
So it wasn’t until recently that Greenip started fielding more requests from current owners about “the unit next door.” “They tended to scale back at first and then decided that they wanted to go bigger after four to five years,” Greenip said.
By the end of 2017, at least 35 residents upgraded their homes, either buying bigger units in the building or purchasing the unit next door, totaling $57,534,375 in sales.
Back at One Riverside, Dranoff went back to the drawing board with architect Cecil Baker, who then came up with a variety of floor plans that decreased the number of one-bedroom units and increased the square footage instead. They ultimately ended up with 18 floor plans, up from the original eight.
Local real estate agent Janet Margolies was quick to combine her preferred two units on the seventh floor of One Riverside when the option became available. After living in multi-story, single-family home in the Art Museum area, she and her husband decided to downsize to a three-bedroom condo. They combined a 750-square-foot one-bedroom that was adjacent to a 1,450-square-foot two-bedroom and den.
“Now, 2,200 square feet is a sweet spot,” said Margolies. “It can meet the needs of most empty nesters who are downsizing.”
Another One Riverside resident said her 3,000-square-foot, double unit is half the size of her former suburban home. Ultimately, 25 percent of buyers at One Riverside ended up buying more than one unit, bringing the total tally down from 82 residences to 68.
“We have bigger units and we have smaller units,” said Dranoff, “but on average 2,500 square foot proved to be our center of gravity. That meant somebody could step down from a single-family home, and still have a three-bedroom apartment, plus amenities and a guest suite. You didn’t need all that extra space.”
Scannapieco doesn’t expect this trend to slow down any time soon. There’s a demand in this high-end sector of real estate for buyers who don’t want to compromise space or luxury for city living, he said.
“What’s happening here isn’t ‘downsizing,’” says Greenip at the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton. “It’s right-sizing.”