Student Housing: From hotel to college living – Students prepare to move in to new Riverfront Residence Hall in former Character Inn

Student Housing: From hotel to college living – Students prepare to move in to new Riverfront Residence Hall in former Character Inn

FLINT, Michigan — Chelsea Hartner strolled through the high-ceiling, chandelier-decked atrium of the new Riverfront Residence Hall, near pool tables and TV screens where students can play Nintendo Wii, X-box and PlayStation.  She toured the glass-walled fitness center overlooking downtown, an expansive study hall facing the Flint River and a soon-to-be movie room filled with black leather sofas and a giant TV screen.  “I am so excited right now,” said the University of Michigan-Flint sophomore as she bounced through a two-room apartment suite similar to the one she will move into next week. “I just can’t wait.”

Hartner will be among the first residents to call the new, 340,000-square-foot downtown student housing facility that opens this fall home – and part of a historical Flint chapter expected to help bring almost 1,000 students living downtown by 2010.  Contractors and construction crews still scatter the 16-story landmark that’s undergoing a $20 million transformation from a hotel to upscale urban housing that will ultimately house 550 college students.  And Hartner is just the type of student the project’s builders are hoping to attract – a young person who once spent more time on the road than in the city.

Last year, the music student commuted almost 40 minutes each way from her home in Owosso to campus. But as a Flint resident this year, she expects to spend more time in new restaurants, the nearby jazz club and hitting the downtown bricks.  “It’s secure, it’s right across the street from campus and it will be a good atmosphere to be with all kinds of different college students,” Hartner said.  “I love all the new nightlife.”  Building developer Ridgway White would not say exactly how many students have signed leases but said he expects the building to be full by January.

About 90 percent of student residents attend UM-Flint, along with a mix that includes Baker College of Flint, Mott Community College, graduate and international students, he said. Eventually, he hopes to draw Kettering University students, too.  With a majority UM-Flint resident community, competitive room rates and lavish amenities such as a fitness center, the Riverfront facility could win over students who may have considered UM-Flint’s First Street Residence Hall that opened a few blocks away last year.  The two college housing facilities share the same official move-in day Sept.2.

But Riverfront and UM-Flint officials insist they are more partners than they are competitors and that the demand for student housing leaves room for both options.  “We are thrilled that they are doing this right next door to the university,” said UM-Flint Spokeswoman Jennifer Hogan. “Anything that brings more students downtown is a win-win for everybody. It’s a really beautiful place.”  “Clearly there’s a demand for all sorts of student housing and I think the demand is going to continue to grow in the downtown area,” she added.

The old Durant Hotel was also expected to offer about 100 apartments to students this fall but the project has been delayed.  Riverfront’s average price is a few hundred dollars cheaper than the First Street Residence Hall – with annual room rates starting at about $3,400 and shooting up to more than $5,000– but does not include food.  Riverfront residents are able to sign up for UM-Flint’s meal plan.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Mott Foundation, which is funding the Riverfront project, paid for a study last year that projected a need for 970 beds by fall of 2013.  White said the new downtown housing option is part of the movement to portray Flint in a new light, from a dying auto town to a vibrant urban space.  Phase one of the renovation of the building, which began as the ritzy Hyatt Regency Hotel in 1981, includes floors one through eight for 250 students.  Uptown Reinvestment Corp., which bought the former Riverfront Character Inn, plans to start a second phase for the remaining eight floors that would make room for a total of about 550 students.

As White walked through the building recently, he envisioned the vacant hallways being filled with students.  Classical music could waft through the former Stetson restaurant-turned study hall. Students will be perched at the barista-style tables lit by blue hanging pendant lamps in the Internet cafe, enjoying food from the snack bar.  Groups of friends will have parties in the communal kitchen areas.  “Uptown’s motto is from auto town to college town,” White said. “We’re going to create the student life that Flint has been missing.

Cliff Sandlin, marketing director for the management group overseeing the Riverfront project, said this building is on a much grander scale than others he has worked on in other cities.  And the Dallas resident said after just a few weeks in Flint, the energy of people hoping for a revival is obvious.  “I definitely see a town on rebound,” he said.

by Beata Mostafavi for Flint Journal


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