Demand for sophisticated high-rise and urban living continues to drive a boom, as some developers up the ante with luxurious amenities and restaurants.

By Camilla McLaughlin

When Trudy Stambook signed on in 1983 as vice president with the developer of the Meridian, San Diego’s first luxury residential high-rise, there were just a few condominiums downtown — perhaps only 400 units — predominately in low-rise buildings. Now, the number of condo units exceeds 11,000.

“There is a lot of construction activity now under way; many of these projects are for rentals,” she says. “Our population count downtown is getting close to 40,000. The goal is to eventually see a population of 90,000.”

Whether it’s the energy and excitement of an urban environment, diverse nightlife, great restaurants and cultural offerings or simply easy access that takes the hassle out of everyday life, the siren call of cities has never been stronger.

Paul Boomsma, president of Luxury Portfolio International, explains: “Lifestyle and actively enjoying a fulfilled life are core drivers for the affluent consumer today. Urban dwellings, whether in a city center or even in mixed-use, nonurban settings, are driving demand from the wealthy.”

Developers are responding with new and revamped buildings, an extensive menu of ever-enticing and increasingly lavish amenities, inspiring architecture and generous floorplans that rival single-family homes.

One of the last obstacles — lack of access to nature — is also fast becoming a thing of the past. “The inherent limitation of living in a condominium, luxurious or not, is mitigated by architects integrating an indoor/outdoor experience. Disappearing glass wall systems that open interior living spaces to large private balconies and spacious rooftop decks, often incorporating outdoor dining areas and pools, are key parts of this same principle,” says Bob Hurwitz, founder and owner of Hurwitz James Company

“Outdoor living is becoming more and more desired and a sign of premier condo living. Atlanta has always been known for its green space and large backyards, so why should high-rises be any different?” shares Karen Rodriguez, exclusive listing broker for the Residences at the Mandarin Oriental in Atlanta. Balconies here include built-in fireplaces and Wolf gas grills.

No longer limited to top metros, urban living has morphed into a national phenomenon. New York and Miami have been pacesetters, but, in recent years, San Francisco, Los Angeles and even Honolulu are establishing 21st-century paradigms for upscale residences, architecture and amenities.

“Many of today’s best-selling properties tend to feature dramatic design elements. Quite simply, they contain a distinguishing wow factor that makes an impression,” observes Boomsma. Hurwitz adds, “The combination of high land cost and the appeal and premium paid for skyline views is fueling the entire ‘vertical’ building boom.” Increasingly, the best buildings, whether ultra-contemporary or a new take on classic architecture, create a sense of place. “All great cities and all great spaces have a point of view that resonates and remains with us long after we depart, beckoning us to return. Our homes should have the same attraction,” says Ken Fulk, a noted interior designer and creative director for The Harrison, a new luxury tower in San Francisco.

Living Room in The Harrison, San Francisco, ©Charlie Nucci

Finding Roots in History

In Manhattan, ultra-contemporary steel and glass towers dominate recent construction, but several buildings draw upon the city’s rich architectural heritage. The limestone tower rising on the Upper East Side at 520 Park Avenue is as much traditional as it is contemporary. Inspiration, according to architect Robert A. M. Stern, came from classics including the Sherry Netherland and The Pierre, two prewar towers that also face Central Park. Finished with Sarrancolin marble and French walnut paneling, the lobby evokes an elegance synonymous with Manhattan, while the residences with 11-foot or taller ceilings, and huge windows are very much of the present.

In historic neighborhoods on the Upper West Side, new buildings are a rarity, but two luxury boutique condominiums rising on West 77th Street are setting a precedent. The facades present a mix of handmade Danish brick, mahogany and bronze metal accents; terraces are set back and greenery seems to cascade down the exterior — all of which firmly ground the buildings in the setting. With only 26 residences in each, floor plans as large as 5,992 square feet, and elevators that open into individual residences, the buildings have become a prime choice for families.

Primary Differences

Often urban homes are looked at as pied-à-terres, so it’s easy to forget a growing number are primary abodes. In San Diego, Stambook says finding a condo that is suitable for a primary residence can be a challenge. “Many of the newer condos are built for secondary homeowners, and that limits what you can do with them even if you renovate. This can be a dilemma for luxury buyers. Our buildings are designed for primary residents with enormous closets and enough storage for black tie to athletic wear to business attire.” To illustrate the staying power of excellent design, she says a good number of residents have been there for decades, often moving from their original purchase to one or more other residences.

Vertical towers are on the rise in San Francisco, but more than a location on Rincon Hill sets The Harrison apart. Although the building is new and individual residences contemporary, the overall feeling conveys a sense of place, beginning with the lobby. As much a grand salon as an entry, it appears as a two-story, cerused oak library filled with one-of-a-kind furnishings, collected objects and curated art. Here, San Francisco’s history almost seems to unfold in front of you. Referring to amenity spaces as well as the lobby, Fulk says, “The rooms have a nod towards old world San Francisco with its continental flair and elegance — yet they’re modern and fresh.” Individual residences are equally distinctive with an ambiance that could best be described as contemporary with a soft edge, an aesthetic that is evolving as an alternative to the sterile ubiquitous interiors that have been so prevalent.

Roof Terrace at 210 West 77th Street, New York City, ©The Boundary

Residential Transformations

In cities large and small, residential real estate has become a transformative element, a role that formerly was relegated to commercial and office properties. Often new towers are part of larger developments that promise to change sections of a city. In Miami, One Thousand Museum is part of a rising museum district that includes the Perez Art Museum Miami, a performing arts center, and Museum of Science overlooking Biscayne Bay. Zaha Hadid Architects’ first and final residential skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, One Thousand Museum is establishing a new standard for luxury. It stands as a vertical sculpture comprised of a twisting exoskeleton that contrasts with the glazing. More than 30,000 square feet is devoted to communal areas.

In Honolulu, a team of visionary architects are creating five significant towers in Hawaii’s only LEED Platinum Certified neighborhood, Ward Village. One of the most design-forward is Anaha, which means “reflection of light” — light reflecting off sets of waves inspired the rolling glass facade. Another, Waiea, designed by Vancouver architect James K. M. Cheng, is slated to open in 2016. These buildings set “a new tone for the evolving architecture of Honolulu,” explains Nick Vanderboom, senior vice president of development for the Howard Hughes Corporation. Like many new condominiums, both will have a notable restaurant, including Nobu Honolulu and the first Merriman’s Restaurant on Oahu.

Water and the breezes that are the essence of the oceanfront inspired Regalia in Miami, explains architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, principal of Arquitectonica. The building appears as a crystalline prism, which floods interiors with natural light. Undulating terraces, each as different as an individual yard, encircle each floor. The facade almost seems to ripple.

When Tishman Speyer Properties was planning Lumina, a new development at Main and Folsom Streets in San Francisco, they relied on the lessons learned from their last project, Infinity, where amenities not only proved to be extremely popular but also sparked a sense of community. With two towers and two mid-rise buildings, Lumina, also designed by Bernardo Fort-Brescia, includes approximately 45,000 square feet of amenities, more than any existing or currently planned luxury community in San Francisco. So complete are the offerings, which range from a Jay Wright fitness center and climbing wall to a fully equipped music practice room — with lighting, sound systems, and instruments such as a Stratocaster Guitar, Fender Bass and keyboards — that residents might have to find an excuse to leave the property. There is a 24-hour business center with conference and board rooms, as well as an extensive rooftop terrace, bi-level club lounge, a 70-foot lap pool, private dining room and a library. An adjacent park is in the works as is a high-end grocer, which will deliver to residents.

Ten50 is the first new high-rise condo tower to be completed in downtown L.A. in over a decade, and the location is a big draw. “Nearly 80 percent of our homeowners currently live or work in downtown Los Angeles. They desire to live in the urban setting that Ten50 and the surrounding area provides, and want to be a part of the future in this vibrant corner of the city,” says Arden Hearing, managing director of Trumark Urban.

Buildings today offer perks that might not be attainable elsewhere. Lumina has the only “Audi at home” car-sharing service on the West Coast, which, Carl Shannon, senior managing director for Tishman Speyer, says, allows residents to live there without a car. Pending FAA and other approvals, One Thousand Museum will have Miami’s first private helipad on a residential tower. Ten50 has a full suite of amenities ranging from a 13,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor lounge to private dining and a screening room. But what sets it apart is the country’s first drone landing pad for air deliveries.

Reports of diminishing demand for ultra-luxury urban residences might be valid in some places, but it is more of a question of supply rather than lack of interest. “As far as the luxury L.A. market is concerned, demand is actually increasing,” says Hurwitz. “For overseas buyers, purchasing a penthouse is very attractive and has advantages over purchasing a single-family residence. For my buyers, these condominiums are almost exclusively part-time residences and being in a full-security building within close proximity to exclusive shopping and the top restaurants is of major appeal. Also, in the case of Beverly Hills, new construction in high-rises is extremely rare, so the units I sold were actually worth substantially more by the time construction was finished and escrows closed.”

Short-term trend or long-term change for buyers? It’s too soon to tell, but there is a good chance that as far as high-end real estate is concerned, the bright lights of the city are not going to dim any time soon.

Ten50 Kitchen, ©steelblue

45 Top Cities For Luxury

Alexandria, Va.  Old Town beckons newcomers. New builds include multi-use e-lofts Alexandria and
the Oronoco.

Atlanta  The residences at the Mandarin Oriental brought a new urban aesthetic. 

Austin  The Austonian raised the bar for luxury condos and it still reigns.

Boston  The Millennium Tower – 55 floors, 685 feet — tops buildings with available residences. Others include the Ritz-Carlton, Harbor Towers and the Clarendon. 

Burlingame, Calif.  A prized Bay Area location makes this locale ripe for more urban residences.

Charleston, S.C.  Urban, historic, waterfront is a winning combo here.

Charlotte  Abuzz with new development — 34 different projects and counting.

Chicago  High-rise history began here. Under construction are 41 new buildings. Proposed: the tallest timber tower in the world.

Dallas  New architectural icon, 33-story Bleu Ciel tower, continues the evolution of the skyline and luxury living.

Denver  Riverfront Park, LoDo (lower downtown) are popular for urban residences and high-rises.

Detroit  #DistrictDetroit merges downtown and midtown into walkable area.   

Dubai  Home to the world’s tallest building, the 163-story, mixed-use Burj Khalifa.

Greenwich, Conn.  More than backcountry estates comprise the Greenwich market. Condo sales hold
their own.

Hong Kong  Sets record with the highest number of completed towers over 150 meters tall.

Honolulu  Ward Village, a new mixed-use community, elevates urban living in Hawaii.

Houston  Retail, office and hotel development in the center city brings new multi-family opportunities.

Irvine, Calif.  Master-planned communities and gorgeous innovative buildings are the trend.

Jacksonville  Waterfront and downtown are a perfect combo. City living includes high-rises, lofts and
luxury rentals.   

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia  A 1,000-meter residential tower under construction claims to be the tallest in the world.

Las Vegas   Urban living has new energy. Las Vegas is home to the largest mixed-use developments
in the country.   

Los Angeles  Downtown development takes off. Ten50 pioneers the new L.A. One visionary project, Fifth and Hill calls for individual lap pools cantilevered above the street. 

London  Home to reportedly one of the grandest urban residences – 15,000 square feet in Admiralty Arch.

Miami  One of only a handful of cities incubating innovations in architecture and lifestyle amenities.

Minneapolis  Bounce back from the recession includes brisk demand and new condos such as Stonebridge Lofts.

Nashville  The urban vibe continues to amplify in this city. Most urban residences are condos. Premier buildings: Veridian, Encore and Art Avenue. 

New York  Despite a cooling of sales in the uber-luxury realm, this is still the ultimate urban location.

Orlando  More than Disney makes for a Florida
favorite. Prime buildings include Star Tower and
Sanctuary Downtown.

Palm Beach  The Bristol and other newcomers usher in a new condo era.

Philadelphia  Center City demand continues to grow as the food scene thrives. Top buildings include 1706 Rittenhouse, Kahn Park Place and The Philadelphian.

Phoenix  A shift in suburban to urban development brings lofts and high-rises.

Pittsburgh  Prices and jobs beckon millennials. Top neighborhoods include Cultural District, Riverpac and the area around the Mon Wharf.

Portland, Ore.  A diversity of edgy urban residences makes this a top pick among cities.

Raleigh-Durham  One City Center is Durham’s first residential luxury high-rise.

San Diego  The city now has more than 11,000 condos.

San Francisco  New towers rise around the
Trans Bay Center.

San Jose  A number of new luxury buildings and condos are on the drawing board, including two 18-story towers.

Scottsdale  Optima Camelview Village integrates lush landscaping into every residence.

Seattle  New icons include the 43-story The Mark with a photovoltaic glass crown. On the books is a 33-story twin tower condo development.

Shanghai  Next-gen architecture includes vibrant natural features in the six towers in CITIC Pacific’s high-rise neighborhood.

St. Louis  Building is booming. Upscale apartments include Citizen Park Luxury Apartments.

Tokyo  Ranks No. 4 worldwide for number of buildings over 150 meters tall.

Toronto  Ranks among the top 10 worldwide for number of skyscrapers.

Vancouver  Detached homes are becoming a rarity, fostering multi-family growth.

Washington, D.C.  City living has never been stronger in both D.C. and close-in suburbs.

Sydney  Expect a high-rise boom here with 75 projects under construction or in pre-construction.