The elevator doors open on the RF (roof? ruff?) floor of the Apartments at CityCenter, and out trots Chompers, a six-and-a-half-month-old French bulldog, trailed by Dan Sax. In front of them is a sign on the wall:
They head left.
A year ago, Sax moved into CityCenterDC, the tony downtown development erected over the past several years on the old convention center site. The apartments there aren’t cheap—studios start at $2,300 a month, and three-bedrooms rent for as much as $7,300—but the luxury amenities on offer (rooftop bocce and grills, an outdoor pool, and a two-story gym) extend to its canine population as well. They’re partly responsible for Sax’s decision to set up residence there.
- The RescuerAs D.C.’s only urban search and rescue dog readies for retirement, the city prepares to devote even more resources to the program.
- Heron ThereBlack-crowned night-herons are beloved—but uninvited—guests at the National Zoo.
- Cat WomanKanchan Singh prepares to open D.C.’s first cat cafe.
- Gone to the DogsThe arms race to lure well-heeled pet owners to luxury apartments
- Wild ThingsEagles and other wildlife are returning to the District as the health of the Anacostia improves.
- Man’s Best Friend ForeverThe Washington Humane Society wants to keep pets in D.C. homes, one neighborhood at a time.
“We knew we were going to get a dog,” he says, “and this was just a major bonus.”
Chompers leads Sax through the double doors bearing a SkyBark decal below the CityCenterDC logo, and they step out onto the roof deck. SkyBark isn’t much to look at—it’s just a narrow stretch of artificial turf, with a poop-bag dispenser in the corner and a strong aroma of urine—but Chompers is visibly thrilled to be there. This despite the fact that Sax takes her up to the roof four to five times a day.
“Since I work at home, I have pretty much no time to take her for a walk,” Sax says. He gestures down at a small fenced-off area by the parking lot down below. “There’s a dog park down there, but…” He scrunches up his face and fleetingly bears a striking resemblance to Chompers.
The past few years have seen an unprecedented spike in high-end pet amenities at new apartment buildings. Even as housing costs in D.C. have skyrocketed, the growing supply of new luxury buildings has increased vacancy and depressed rents there, leading developers to play a game of one-upmanship as they try to lure pet-owning tenants.
“It becomes like an arms race,” says Patrick Sprouse, director of sales at the D.C. apartment brokerage Urban Igloo. “‘I’ve got the dog run.’ ‘OK, I’ve got the pet salon.’ ‘Well I’ve got the dog park, the dog run, and the pet salon.’”
At 2M, an apartment building in NoMa that opened last fall, guests can schedule appointments to spend time with Emmy, a resident English bulldog, in their apartments or the building’s courtyard dog park. Senate Square, an apartment complex near Union Station, boasts a “24-hour rooftop dog agility course.” The Shay, an upcoming complex at 8th Street NW and Florida Avenue from the JBG Companies, will have a dog-washing station. The list goes on.
But none of these projects can match CityMarket at O, the sprawling Shaw complex with two luxury apartment buildings, a building for low-income seniors, and a Giant supermarket.
“I think CityMarket probably brought the hammer down,” Sprouse says. “I don’t think anyone can compete because of the size of that property. I think they’re the 800-pound gorilla.”
As the workday comes to a close, CityMarket’s rooftop comes to life. On a recent evening, about 10 dogs tussle in the 3,600-square-foot turf-covered dog park at any given time. (The turf, though porous and designed for its canine users, still stinks of doggy pee.) They lap up water from the lowest level of the three-tiered water fountain (adults, kids, dogs; guess which one gets the most use). They chase down balls and play tug of war. For the most part, they ignore the red plastic fire hydrant, with its steady drip of water.
Every once in a while, an owner will lead a less social dog to the Small Dog Area past the main dog run, or to the Large Dog Area past that. Alongside the dog park is a bathing suite, with one bath for big dogs and one for little ones. “I actually joked that they should have opened this up to the senior housing and bathed granny in here,” says Catherine Timko, a spokeswoman for the project’s developer, Roadside Development, as she takes me and our photographer on a tour.
The roof offers one of the city’s best views, extending from the Capitol to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. But its human occupants are more focused on their canine companions.
“Look!” shouts Jenny Mooney, who moved in when the building opened two winters ago (largely on the basis of the dog facilities), to her 6-year-old mutt Ginger. “It’s your buddy, Ging!”
And up runs Otto, a year-and-a-half-old French bulldog. Otto and his owner, Josh Phillips, come up to the roof three to four times a day. “It’s pretty much the reason we moved here,” says Phillips, who’s opening a Mexican restaurant, Espita Mezcalería, around the corner. “I mean, the building turned out to be nice. But this is why we’re here.”
Otto overheats easily in the summer, so the roof is more practical than a walk through the streets when nature calls. Other dog owners at CityCenter do often go for walks outside. But these rooftop facilities add a new wrinkle to neighborhood dynamics. As the gentrification debates intensified several years ago, the arrival of dog parks (or takeover of ordinary parks by dogs) became a kind of code among longtime residents for unwanted neighborhood change. With dog owners taking increasingly to rooftops, that could ease tensions—or exacerbate them by further segregating neighborhoods like Shaw.
But Roadside founding partner Richard Lake says he had no sociological motives in building the city’s premier dog roof. “That did not come into my consciousness,” he says. “I have a hard time understanding that approach. I know a lot of people in the neighborhood who have dogs. And I think they’d find it silly if we distinguished socioeconomics with who had a dog.”
But it was the rise of a certain class of renter that inspired the facilities at CityMarket. Roadside’s first big mixed-use project in D.C. was Cityline at Tenley, on Wisconsin Avenue NW. “We noticed that people were using some of our gardens for dog walking,” says Lake. “And we thought, geez, we don’t want that to happen, because that destroys plants.” At CityMarket, the furniture outside of the specified dog areas is still dog-friendly, so pooches can hop up on the couches without causing damage.
The main reason for the luxury dog amenities, though, is to attract renters, and marketing efforts are in high gear. The Bozzuto Group, which manages most of the city’s stateliest canine pleasure domes, including CityCenter and CityMarket, organizes regular yappy hours at its buildings and sets up a dog photo booth with Santa Claus at Christmas time. Each of its buildings has dog treats at the front desk and features a pet of the month, which gets its picture displayed in the elevators and wins prizes like a day at the doggy day spa. Recently, Bozzuto shot its first promotional video using a GoPro strapped onto a dog, to give prospective tenants a dog’s-eye view of the amenities at the Shelby in Alexandria.
“We try to go above and beyond and create a carefree and active lifestyle for the residents,” says JoLynn Scotch, senior vice president of Bozzuto Management. “And now that’s extending to their pets.”
Not all pets are welcome in these luxury buildings. Scotch says she’s had to turn down tenants who wanted to move in with potbelly pigs. Sprouse struggled mightily this month to find a home for a client with a weasel, eventually turning to a small private property after giving up on multifamily buildings. Cats, lizards, and birds are usually allowed, although there aren’t generally amenities that cater to them.
Even among dogs, there’s breed discrimination. For all its dog-friendly facilities, Bozzuto specifies 29 types of dogs banned from its buildings due to their size or aggressive breed history. That makes it hard for people with pitbulls or dobermans or huskies to move into apartment buildings, even if their dogs are well behaved.
“The most aggressive breed is apparently dachshunds, but they’re never on the restricted breed list,” says Sprouse.
Lake estimates that 30 percent of CityMarket residents own dogs, and another 4 percent have cats. Dog ownership there, says Scotch, is only about 5 percent higher than at Bozzuto’s other D.C. properties.
But the appeal of some dog facilities extends beyond dog owners. Doug Crawford, the property manager of 2M, says that at least a few residents moved in specifically to hang out with Emmy, the resident bulldog. (While Emmy spends her days in the lobby, she sleeps at night with Crawford in his 2M apartment or with the assistant manager.)
Mara Pillinger is one of them. The 30-year-old George Washington University Ph.D. candidate moved into 2M last August, drawn by Emmy.
“That was really what attracted me to the building,” she says. “I would love to have a dog, but I’m a student and my schedule’s really crazy.”
She borrows Emmy every day, usually taking her for a walk in the dog park or just playing tug of war in the office. She enjoys her time with Emmy enough that she’s re-evaluating just how busy her schedule is.
“I’m thinking about getting a bulldog,” she says. “Which is a new thing.” Next stop: SkyBark?
Photos by Darrow Montgomery