Real Estate

A Focus Group of Harvard Millennials Helped Design These U Street Apartments

And Scarlett Johansson's trainers consulted on the gym.
A model unit at the Clifton. Photos courtesy of Aria Development.

Pretty much every developer building luxury apartments in DC will tell you they’re designing them for Millennials. Typically, that translates to a rooftop with Instagrammable lounge areas, snug (but light-filled!) units, and hiring a concierge who keeps dog treats at the desk. For his company’s first new building in Washington, Aria Development cofounder Joshua Benaim took it a step further, consulting a focus group of 20-somethings at Harvard Business School, his own alma mater, for their input on the design.

On a recent afternoon, Benaim gave me a tour of the final product, the Clifton, a 156-unit building just north of U Street at 13th and—you guessed it—Clifton streets, NW. He says it should be ready for people to move in by July.

First stop: the mail area near the reception desk. “They were like, ‘Just get me my packages,'” he says of the Harvard cohort’s advice. He shows off the options for various types of deliveries he installed as a result. They include: refrigerated storage for groceries, Amazon Hub lockers, and—on another level, near the gym—Dryy lockers, where residents can drop off and pick up their laundry and dry-cleaning.

The apartments themselves range from one- to four-bedrooms. The bedrooms in the larger units are of equal size, making them easier to divvy up among roommates, another tip from the focus group. In a one-bedroom model unit, Benaim explains how the Harvard students told him they’d rather pay less for smaller apartments, as long as they’re efficiently planned. In this one, the kitchen is basically in the living room. But he says the appliances “recede” into the cabinetry so they don’t impose. He describes the layout as “Zen.”

A “Zen” kitchen.
The building’s exterior on Clifton Street, NW.

Another cue Benaim took from the Millennials? The artsy vibe of the staging in the model apartments. Every one of them includes a guitar, he says. (Not because actual musicians could likely afford the rent—studios start at $2,000 a month. The largest units are around $5,600. But hey, Big Law associates like to feel bohemian, too.)

The gym, however, is where Benaim really gets to brag. He says he knows the guys behind Homage Fitness, who are Scarlett Johansson’s personal trainers. He solicited their input for the design and types of equipment to include. It has a boxing station and Peloton bikes and a wall of preserved moss.

But back to the Harvard Millennials. Turns out they like bikes. Which is good news for DC’s young professionals, who also like bikes. So Benaim built a massive storage room for all of the bikes. It also has a repair station.

The rooftop pizza oven.

The rooftop amenities are not as elaborate as some buildings. There’s no infinity pool, or even any pool. But there is a sleek, communal kitchen and dining area inside that’s big enough for parties. And outside, Benaim had a pizza oven installed. On the whole, it’s a lovely building in a nice location. But is it so different from all the other new, luxury apartments in town that, as far as I know, weren’t focus-grouped at Harvard? Not really. (Although none of those involved ScarJo.)

View from the roof.

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She was previously a reporter for Legal Times and the National Law Journal. She has recently written about the Marriott family’s civil war and the 50-year rebirth of 14th Street, and reported the definitive oral history of the Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt case. She lives in Northeast DC with her husband, two dogs, and two cats.