Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Creating Authenticity – Can it be Done?

Dateline: 8:08 pm September 18, 2013 Filed under:

How do developers create authenticity and community? It is a big question, and increasingly important, since apartment vacancy won’t remain below 3% forever and apartment developer/owners will have to find ways to set their buildings apart from the competition and keep occupancy healthy in the long run.

Authenticity is one of many words used to describe great cities, including community, gritty, lively, and serendipity. In a January Financial Times essay, Edwin Heathcote says, “There is the thrill of serendipity, to wander from a tight, dark alley into a small square with a fountain.” This begs the question, can every developer create a dark alley and a small square with a fountain, and if they all did, would it still be authentic or serendipitous? Authenticity is subjective, of course, but there has to be some element of authenticity widely accepted by buyers and renters.


A colleague of mine recently pointed out that urban dwellers in Minneapolis have two options: single-family homes or apartments or condos in larger four- to five-story buildings. There is some truth to this statement. The city doesn’t have another distinctive form of architecture like rowhomes in Washington and Boston, for example, or three-flats like Chicago. A few high-rises exist downtown but don’t form a meaningful definition of the city’s fabric. One could argue older apartments in Uptown are a third choice, but I question that, while they may be authentic, most also lack updates like air conditioning and are not a long-term choice for most people. Some attention has been given to what the urban form of the city will be in future years and whether we will or even want to be known for the five story architecture common today. Is it authentic? Worse, is it authentically bad?

One answer to this question of authenticity lies in my personal preference for urban life. I for one have yet to find my ideal next step, non-single-family housing option (in Minneapolis). I’ve been in many apartment and condo units in Minneapolis and St. Paul that I’d live in, for the style, layout, view, etc. I’ve also identified neighborhoods in which I’d live, but these are few and far between and I haven’t found overlap between unit and location. I’d demand a Walkscore of 90 or greater, and while that exists in many places, within that walkshed there must be a full-service grocery store and fixed-rail transit of some kind. I’m not sure that exists in the Twin Cities (if it does, please tell me!). I’ve been to cities and stayed in vacation rentals that meet this criteria. Sadly, this means in 2013 my only option (in the Twin Cities) is to remain in a single-family home with nearby transit, a great neighborhood to be sure but not a 90 walkscore and no grocer within walking distance. Maybe by the time I’m an empty nester my dream location will exist.

I’m just one customer, but this does boil down to authenticity and community. Developers know they can attract Gen Y to hip urban locations, but what about those empty-nester-ish folks in a single-family home looking for an authentic multifamily option? They say, “I’d love to sell my single-family home and try apartment (or condo) living, but the place I want hasn’t been built yet.” What’s really more important to customers, amenities and features in the building itself or things outside the door? Is it management, design, a big enough storage space, the perfect kitchen, a lovely view, or the world outside the front door, down the sidewalk somewhere?

Is community and authenticity really possible for a developer to create without the perfect location? If not a developer, then who?

Even then, what is authentic? What is community?

Please voice your opinion. I value your insight and experience.

This was crossposted at


  1. The main challenge for a developer of smaller apartment buildings in infill settings is the low “return on brain damage”. 12 to 16 units in two modest two story buildings can take as much time and energy to move through municipal approvals and neighborhood meetings as a 5 story 60 unit building. What happens when the planning commission decides to reduce the number of units from 12 to 9 in the eleventh hour after 10 months of work with the municipal staff and the neighbors? Even with transit nearby, are folks ready to go along with development proposals that don’t have suburban levels of off-street parking?

    Comment by R. John Anderson — September 18, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

  2. Joe

    Here’s how Vancouver developers portray community in their transit-oriented developments – But I doubt many would call these ‘authentic.’

    There’s a perception that single-family or low-rise are the only forms that are ‘authenthic’; highrise is assumed to be alienating and transient – some of which is true. But now that I’m old enough, I realize that authenticity is something that comes with time, and the creation of community occurs when people are in one place long enough to build it. It can happen in single-family subdivisions; it can happen in my highrise neighbourhood, the West End. (Other factors also play a role, but that’s essentially it.)

    That’s not something a developer can create; it can only be referenced, implied, hoped for or imagined – and ultimately marketed in a way, though extreme, that you can see in the videos.

    If the planners, councilmembers, developers, financiers, community representatives and everyone else involved in the making of our cities provide enough choices, you’ll more easily find what you need. But believe me, if it’s new, there will be those who say it’s not authentic. That, in the end, takes time, and your contribution.

    Comment by Gordon Price (Price Tags) — September 18, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

  3. I agree with Gordon. Of the many apartment communities I’ve managed, the one with the most authenticity was a historic downtown high-rise building. It is a “quaint” high-rise with a residential-feeling entrance and elevator lobby. People talk to each other. Many work downtown on the skyway or go to the Y next door so they see the same people a lot. When you remove car-centric culture (i.e. extra space and cheap parking), people can interact. The building is right around 100 units so management knows everyone. It is personal. The small, yet comfortable shared spaces and shared lifestyle of residents allows them to connect.

    Comment by Caryn — October 15, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

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