Dan Glass is a freelance writer living in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired.com, and Vice, among other publications.
On the outskirts of New York City, a new housing model aimed at Millennials asks: What is city living?
The peaked wooden eave jutting from the facade of the charcoal glass tower is trying to tell you something. So is the neon sign over the entranceway that says “home sweet home.” But it takes a beat to realize that the light-box sign reading Urby is not for an upmarket extended-stay hotel. You’re supposed to live here.
The new mixed-use residential development on Staten Island’s crane-studded north shore is the first in a proposed chain of apartment projects from New Jersey-based Ironstate Development, which has a record of building large luxury developments on the “Gold Coast” of the New Jersey waterfront. Other locations in the works include Jersey City (one of three towers completed), Harrison, New Jersey (now renting), and Stamford, Connecticut (underway). Each complex comprises ultramodern living units, ground-level retail, amenities such as heated outdoor pools, fitness centers, and keyless entry via phone app.
But Urby’s marketing emphasis is on common areas intended to facilitate interaction between tenants, like the coffee shops integrated into the lobbies and communal kitchens that host wine pairings and cooking demos. Ironstate has dubbed their model Urban Ready Life, or URL—“an all-encompassing living experience for today’s urbanite.”
“The idea for the concept came about from what I would call a spatial exploration,” says Ironstate CEO David Barry. "It’s expensive to create space. I don't want to shoehorn [people] into places, but with all the on-demand services that exist today, you just need less storage and less space in general."
For design inspiration, Barry looked to the dense urbanization patterns of Europe and the Dutch architectural and design identity firm Concrete, which has a roster of luxury hotel, restaurant, and retail clients in Europe and abroad. They built mockups in warehouses to study how to make a small space feel bigger, and decide what the primarily Millennial market would and wouldn’t do without. The collaboration resulted in sleek apartments of somewhat Tokyo-esque proportions, making clever use of pocket doors, station-like kitchens and baths, and closets with built-in shelving. Nonessential furniture and decor and extra room to entertain were jettisoned.
So was parking: Urby sites are located almost within Frisbee-throwing distance of commuter rail stations, and include common bike rooms. The developments adhere to New Urbanist principles—emphasizing dense, mixed-use, and walkable neighborhoods with access to public transportation.
Barry says that at least 80 percent of Urby tenants are under 39, don't have children, and expect to stay for perhaps three years or so; he calls them “starter apartments.” At $5,190 for a two-bedroom in Jersey City, or a Staten Island studio that starts at $1,995, they’re not for the stereotypical basement-dwelling young adult just leaving the nest. Though 20 percent of Staten Island Urby units are “affordable” (enabling tax-exempt financing under New York’s 80/20 program), most apartments are geared toward the moneyed professionals who have been surging into the urban areas where many tech companies are locating.
Ironstate sharpened its appeal to Millennial renters not only by using common areas as a living space, but by filling those spaces with “human programming,” Barry says. “You can’t just take a space and throw people in there and expect that they’re going to figure out how to have their own wine tasting or cooking class or that they’re going to connect with each other." So Urby employs a cultural director with a nightclub and hospitality background and deputies to organize activities for residents. There might be stump-the-chef or other paid event in the kitchen, standup comedy in the cafe, and flower arranging in a workshop room. “It’s a boost,” Barry says, “to help people in this demographic connect to each other—and make them feel more emotionally connected to the brand."
Each location has a different programming focus: Jersey City Urby has a scientist-in-residence, and Harrison will have a resident jazz musician. Staten Island’s farmer-in-residence works a 4,500-square-foot urban farm, selling produce at weekend markets and to tenants who can enjoy locally grown kale smoothies.
This isn’t an exercise in co-living, however, where apartment-sharing companies like Common seek to fill a niche for those willing to have roommates or share bathrooms. Barry says that approach is too aggressive for his audience, which seeks a faster commute but with a higher standard of comfort than they can afford in the city. This may indicate a perhaps less-than-trendy trend: that many of them don't actually want to live in a city, with all of its expenses and eccentricities, but they want the amenities—nearby restaurants and bars, and like-minded people with whom to socialize.
So then, what could be wrong with a neighborhood in a box?
It depends on what the idea of a neighborhood is. “With Urby, we're redefining what it means to live in a city,” Ironstate's literature states. Indeed, the name itself captures the development’s central conceit: It’s not urban, just “urb-like,” implying that something is getting left out of this city-themed part of a city.
I called the writer and social critic James Howard Kunstler, who vivisected the suburban model so effectively in his book The Geography of Nowhere, to get his take on the idea of urban-style living without the grit and realness of the real thing. He turns out to be OK with it. “An awful lot of young people who’ve been raised up in the monotonous suburbs of America might be greatly rewarded by the delivery of minimal urbanism,” he says. For young Urby-ites, a selective mix of public attractions provides a stimulating simulacrum of city living. “The environments they’re coming from are socially impoverished and culturally impoverished. So if they find themselves just in proximity to other people, that’s a really good start.”
But the limits of the Urby vision of curating social programming for adults are vividly illustrated every time a gargantuan cruise ship slides behind the Staten Island complex. No matter how good the programming is, it is very difficult to make a "we" when everything that happens is administered by a “they.” Unless interaction is a product of residents themselves, aren’t such gatherings more amenity than community?
Or maybe that distinction just isn’t important. “It's a fairly simple thing they're delivering," says Kunstler, “which is a living arrangement that provides some connection to other people and other activities besides just sleeping and watching television.”
David Morris, co-founder of the pro-localism think tank Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has some other concerns: What about another community—the existing residents who are now living beside this 900-unit Staten Island property? Urby stands in stark juxtaposition to the humble and somewhat run-down main street of Stapleton, just a block away.
It's a similar scenario in Harrison, New Jersey, where the Urby is part of an even larger Ironstate-created neighborhood around the commuter train station. When completed it will have over 2,200 apartments and 80,000 square feet of retail space in a 1.2 square-mile town. "The overall scale of the development will dwarf anything within a quarter of a mile, if not half a mile,” says Morris of the Staten Island complex. “That makes me wonder about what happens in the shadows of it. Normally gentrification happens incrementally. Here, they’re sort of cutting to the chase.”
Such one-stop revitalization/gentrification engines often appeal to local governments, since luring one big developer is a lot easier than trying to fill dozens of vacant storefronts. But they can be perilous: Morris says city leaders might not have the expertise to negotiate with big developers and often hand over excessive subsidies and tax breaks. Towns might also be tempted to use the revitalization argument to seize private property through eminent domain, as happened a decade ago in Long Branch, New Jersey, where Ironstate built its Pier Village complex.
Another concern is the community’s retail mix, which tends to overwhelmingly favor the bars and restaurants that young singletons prioritize. “A key sign of this being a positive and rooted development is whether they’re going to have a hardware store," says Morris. “A laundry would be a wonderful place to be communal, even better than a communal kitchen.” For necessities, instead of the mom-and-pop bodegas that vend toothpaste and toilet paper, Urby has “Bodega”—an elegant artisanal eats dispensary modeled, loosely, on New York City’s iconic convenience stores.
The degree to which you find this either charming or ridiculous probably predicts your willingness to embrace the conceptual haziness at the heart of the Urby model. “It’s unclear to have a development whose brand is a sense of place and community and rootedness when it is targeted to people who will be there temporarily,” says Morris.
Of course, for the younger people who choose to live in these city-like spaces, the idea of home may be morphing into something less permanent—a set of social amenities instead of an actual place. It’s a platform where those who may be tiring of stuff can instead consume socialness. One of the most telling descriptors of life in New York City, and in cities in general, is that word “grit.” Grit is not an aesthetic choice; it’s a signal that no one is trying to sell you a story. Replacing that rough and dirty stuff with a fine-tuned design theme could make Urby a great place to live, but not a great neighborhood. A great neighborhood asks not to be defined, but explored, participated in, and contributed to. And it’s that genuine connection to a place and its people that make a neighborhood a home.