When Mike Green’s youngest son went off to college, he swapped a five-bedroom house in Excelsior for a suburban apartment that’s about a third as big. Still, he managed to wedge his dining table into the space, but not his leather sectional.
“It was humongous and looked really silly in here,” Green said. “So I sold that and got smaller furniture.”
Downsizing hasn’t stopped him from hosting his annual Thanksgiving celebration at his Hopkins apartment building, where he recently reserved an “entertainment suite” with a fully outfitted kitchen, table for 12 and a generous couch perched in front of a fireplace and big-screen TV.
“There was a place for people to watch football, a place to play board games and then a prep and serving area,” said Green. “And I didn’t have 15 people packed into my three-bedroom apartment.”
Twin Cities developers are luring baby boomers and empty nesters from their suburban homes by offering decked-out gathering spaces with fully outfitted kitchens and dining tables big enough for the whole family.
“Grandpa can even fall asleep on the sofa if he wants,” said Kelly Doran, a Twin Cities-based developer who has embraced the trend full-throttle.
Such spaces, he says, are aimed at providing elements of the homes those empty nesters are leaving behind, including one of the most important: A dining room table, which often gets left behind in the move.
“In a lot of cases that’s the center of family get-togethers,” said Doran. “But a dining room might only get used two to three times a year.”
The lack of a full-size dining room, which is rare in most new apartments, is “the last resistance” when it comes to persuading people to downsize, he said.
Doran and others hope that dedicated entertaining spaces will appease longtime suburban homeowners who are ready to downsize but unwilling to leave their social lives behind.
“We’re the silver tsunami,” said Sue Ribe, an empty nester who’s been a homeowner for more than 40 years. For several years she and her husband contemplated renting but until recently were reluctant to make the move because they didn’t want to downsize the way they entertain.
At the forefront of their concerns was how they’d fit their furniture into their two-bedroom apartment at the Moline in Hopkins, a fear that was confirmed during a before-move brainstorming session with a building manager. “He said, ‘Chances are your standard round oak table with leaves won’t fit in there unless you don’t want a couch.’ ”
They ended up making the move and replacing the table they had for several years with a drop-leaf model “like the ones [our] grandmas and grandpas had,” she said. “Now, when we have guests we bring it out and can have six people, but it’s pretty cozy.”
For large gatherings, including book clubs, holidays and their annual cookie-baking party with their grandkids, they reserve an entertainment suite.
“The kitchen is much nicer than what’s in the apartment,” she said.
Today’s gathering spaces are an evolution of the club houses, party rooms and lounges that are common in apartment communities built earlier this decade.
In many cases, the latest iterations have more flexible spaces to eat and gather and better kitchen counters and equipment than most single-family houses.
At the Moline, that includes two ovens, stoves and dishwashers and a table for 12. There’s also a big-screen TV and sofa where families can kick back after supper and nap or watch TV in front of a fire.
Several buildings have outdoor gathering spaces that can be reserved for private events. At LPM Apartments on the edge of downtown Minneapolis there’s an outdoor kitchen, seating for 50 and a wet bar.
“People like to get together. We’re social creatures,” said Tod Elkins, managing partner at UrbanWorks Architecture in Minneapolis. “So the question is how do you make these buildings attractive for people who aren’t doing dinner parties on a day-to-day basis but might want to host a ‘Friendsgiving’?”
Elkins, whose firm specializes in multifamily design, said that most renters-by-choice today are baby boomers who are downsizing and first-time renters who are now the same age as their children. The challenge, he said, is designing common spaces that both demographic groups can use.
“So those spaces are becoming more focused and flexible,” he said.
There’s another major change that’s driving this trend, Elkins said: Apartments are shrinking. The average one-bedroom apartment is now about 100 square feet smaller than it was a decade ago, making it difficult to cram the kinds of full-size kitchens suburban dwellers are accustomed to into compact apartments. The solution, developers say, is an on-demand entertaining space that will impress your friends.
“It’s a lot about aspirational living,” Elkins said. “But you can’t put a beautiful kitchen into every unit.”
Doran said he’s also incorporating entertainment suites into nearly all of his new projects, including Silver Lake Village, a 498-unit apartment development along Silver Lake Road in St. Anthony that has received preliminary approval.
“We hope to attract people from the immediate area who are at the stage of life where they don’t want to own a home and mow the grass,” he said. “The goal and hope is to attract lifestyle renters.”
And the competition has never been more fierce. Throughout the metro area, developers plan to build nearly 7,000 apartments this year and even more in the coming year. While developers have largely been focused on downtown Minneapolis, they’re shifting their focus to the suburbs where the potential renter pool is primarily longtime homeowners.
That’s why developers are attaching those gathering spaces to other amenities they hope will attract boomers who want their grandchildren to visit them more often. At many buildings, including the Moline, the entertainment suites are next to a rooftop gathering space with several kid-friendly amenities.
“Combine that with the other amenities including pools, game rooms and even some movie theaters,” Doran said. “When you have all that, grandma’s house is a pretty cool place to go.”