Creating Functional Outdoor Spaces from Outdated Tennis Courts



Think of amenities for today’s apartment communities and the list includes the latest desirable perks that fit our everyday lifestyles, everything from green energy efficiencies to modern technology compatibilities.

Property owners are always looking for the latest and great selling points to boost and retain occupancies in highly competitive markets across the U.S., but what’s hot today doesn’t necessarily mean that will be the case in a few years.

Take for instance, the tennis court.

The golden age of the tennis court

While Billie Jean King was racking up Grand Slam titles in the 1970s and 80s, lighted tennis courts were a desirable amenity at apartment communities. I remember the courts in the late 70s at Sotogrande Apartments, a premier property between Dallas and Fort Worth created by former Dallas Mayor and land developer Bob Folsom.

Folsom had returned from a vacation in Spain with his wife, Margaret, and several other up-and-coming developers and was so impressed that he decided to create a unique apartment community based on Sotogrande, which today is one of the largest privately owned residential developments at the country’s southern tip.

Sotogrande in Euless, Tex., was a long-term development of 10 separate communities surrounding a Par 3 golf course, eight lighted tennis courts, swimming pool, restaurant, and club. A big tennis player, Folsom spared little cost to create tennis nirvana for experienced and amateur players alike.

But like many, the shelf life for sports amenities faded at Sotogrande, and other properties, too. By 1990, liability forced management to bogey the golf course in favor of a green belt and the seldom-used tennis courts were sold.

“Tennis courts became outdated 10-15 years ago because they became very expensive to put in and had high maintenance requirements and costs,” said Apartment Association of Dallas Executive Director Gerry Henigsman, who worked with Folsom at Sotogrande. “If you didn’t maintain them, the serious tennis players complained. Kids would use them for anything but tennis.”

Likewise, some playgrounds, a popular family attraction, have gone the course of the tennis court. Liabilities and concerns about construction of jungle-gyms have come into question, and some communities are choosing to rip them out, Henigsman said.

Extreme makeover for the abandoned tennis court

So what does a property do with the often unattractive space left behind from amenities from yesterday? A spirited exchange of ideas from an online industry group had plenty of suggestions, including turning tennis court slabs into anything from soccer courts to parking lots to community areas.

The discussion’s underlying message is that property owners should be aware that the clock will eventually run out on big-ticket amenities that sometimes consume large areas at great expenses.

David J. Plechner, Design Sales Manager for C.M. Jones, Inc. near Philadelphia, Pa., says many clients are taking down the nets or removing other unusable paved areas in favor of outdoor spaces loaded with more than just a picnic table and cast-iron grill.

Part of the reason is Environmental Protection Agency mandates under the Clean Water Act to reduce storm water discharges, which adversely affect the quality of U.S. waters. Impervious surfaces like outdated tennis courts, parking lots, and even roofs have come under scrutiny.

“What we’re seeing is a complete shift away from what I would consider wasteful or underutilized outdoor paved areas,” Plechner said. “It’s a more of function of why they want to get rid of it. We’ve had projects that they just want to rip out tennis court and convert it to grass.”

Plechner isn’t sure whether it’s a shift in demographics or just that folks in the City of Brotherly Love want more social interaction, but outdoor spaces with an emphasis on functionality and aesthetics are in demand.

Many are outfitted with outdoor bars, barbecue pits, and even large screen televisions. The outdoor spaces may also feature built-in seating, greenery and covered patios with tables and chairs. Community gardens are also popular. No matter the design, outdoor gathering places beckon residents to assemble for a cold beverage, good food and lively conversation any time of year.

“There is a lot of social interaction at apartment complexes,” he said. “We see a huge emphasis on community spaces and gathering places. They’ve got outdoor bars and grills; residents will come out with their own alcohol and mix drinks behind the bar. It’s one big social event every night.”

Creating outdoor spaces for greater sense of community

The new gathering spots are outdoor spaces that are throwbacks to clubhouses, which Henigsman says still maintain their appeal, along with swimming pools, in today’s apartment community culture.

Many properties have morphed clubhouses into multi-use venues that go far beyond a warm place to host a birthday bash with punch and cookies.

“I think clubhouses have been pretty important,” Henigsman said. “Most of them have media rooms and workout areas that are pretty sophisticated. I think that retains a lot of value when residents are looking at places. They see that as something they would use and an opportunity to save on a gym membership.”

It’s doubtful that clubhouses will fall off the list of desirable apartment amenities any time soon, but times do change and property owners should envision a plan for an outdated amenity, Henigsman and Plechner say.

And even though removal of those old tennis courts that once were all the racket signals the end of an era for some, it may be the beginning of a social opportunity and community bond for others.

“The bonus is you’ll re-energize the feel of community plus you’ll eliminate a lot of impervious surface,” Plechner said.

What are you doing to keep your outdoor amenities up to date and functional?


Image: Vista Germantown apartments in Nashville, TN



Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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