Student Housing: In student apartments, ‘A’ is for amenities

By Richard M. Barron for the News & Record.

At local colleges, you can still live in a cramped cinder-block dorm room with a twin bed and milk-crate bookshelves and share a not-too-private bathroom with 10 of your closest friends.

Or you can join the hundreds of students who are moving into plush apartments off campus, with a private bath and bedroom, modern furniture, swimming pool and a turn-key social scene.

There’s a growing niche of developments in Greensboro willing to supply that at an affordable price. The number of luxury rooms for students in Greensboro will triple in the coming months, fueled by the growth of UNCG, dorm construction that can’t keep up with demand, and a generation of students who grew up wanting for nothing at home — and expecting that same luxury at school.

“We’ll be the first to tell you we’re not selling square footage. It’s the total experience,” says Jessica H. Nix, the director of marketing and public relations for Place Properties. That company developed Spring Place, a new student community off Spring Garden Street near Merritt Drive.

Spring Place opened its 576 bedrooms in August with a combination of flats and townhome apartments. The immaculately landscaped traditional wooden buildings resemble beach resorts.

Its clubhouse, filled with ultra-modern furniture, a polished concrete floor and avocado and purple walls, was designed to suit students, not parents, Nix said.

Two more complexes are under construction along the Spring Garden corridor from Wendover Avenue to Freeman Mill Road and are set to open in August 2011. In all, developers are spending upward of $50 million on the construction under way:

* The Dinerstein Cos. is constructing the Cottages at West End on property bordering Spring Place. It’s a $30 million project with 600 beds arranged in “cottage”-style buildings, some like large, freestanding houses.

* The Edwards Cos. is building The Province, luxury student apartments with more than 600 beds in the College Hill neighborhood. A promotional video shows dignified traditional red brick-and-wood buildings with a college-campus look.

Companies are providing this luxury at a price comparable to dorm living — between $500 and $600 per month per student. But keep in mind that makes a full-price rental about $2,000; for that price, a family or single renter can secure a pretty nice house.

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So why do this much new construction now? It’s all because freshmen are dramatically different than they were a generation ago.

“You come from living at your parents’ house, and you’ve always had your own space,” said Katherine Bell, a 19-year-old freshman at UNCG from High Point. “I like having my own room and a full bed. At the dorm, the twin beds are so tiny.”

Bell is typical of students her age who grew up in a cocoon of private bedrooms, TVs and computers.

Bell lives in a fully furnished four-bedroom apartment at Spring Place with her sister, Jennifer, a senior, and two other students.

It’s a far cry from student apartments in the 1970s that came with rough, wooden This End Up furniture.

The atrium living room with bright second-story windows contains a comfortable two-tone sofa and chair, accent tables, dining table and open kitchen counter.

The complete kitchen includes fashionable black appliances where Katherine Bell can indulge her love of cooking. A washer and dryer sit in a nook off the kitchen.

The soft-spoken Bell, who wants to get into the information technology field like her father, said her decision to live here was something her entire family agreed on.

“My parents just figured if they’re paying about the same (as a dorm room), why not let me get an apartment and live with my sister and have a kitchen where I can cook,” she said. “I love to cook,” she added, waving both hands for emphasis.

Her bedroom, with its full-size bed, ceiling fan, full bath and roomy closet, is a self-contained living space.

“I love not having to wear flip-flops to the bathroom and shower,” she said. “I love having a private bedroom to myself.”

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In a down economy that’s seen little in the way of new construction locally, collegiate apartment development is soaring.

For these developments, students don’t even need cars — they have their own shuttle service to N.C. A&T and UNCG.

It wasn’t too long ago that most students who wanted to live in a dorm could do so. It was considered an integral part of campus culture. But many large schools, including UNCG, have outgrown that custom.

The university is building apartments and suites of rooms to try to keep up with demand, but it’s not enough. There are 4,300 dorm and apartment beds available and nearly half of those are taken by freshmen.

“We’ve literally pushed our upperclassmen off campus,” Mike Byers, UNCG’s associate vice chancellor for business affairs, said. “We don’t have the facilities for them.”

The university helps students find apartments, but independent living can sometimes be uncharted territory for a student accustomed to living on campus.

So student apartment developers have learned they can bridge that divide by turning complexes into friendly almost-satellite campuses.

Ensconced in all the creature comforts, students can stay cloistered in their nice apartments and forget to socialize. So these developments plan regular activities for students to foster a sense of community and friendship. Pool parties, game tournaments and a host of smaller events also help students respect each other and the property, Nix said.

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If these new-age apartments are a haven for students, they’re also a new shelter of sorts for the battered investors behind the boom.

For those who have seen their money disappear in single-family housing developments and commercial real estate, student housing may be one of the few places they can be reasonably assured they’ll earn healthy returns.

Student apartments are a type of real estate that requires some specialization.

Jon Bell is president of Greensboro’s Bell Partners, which manages an investment portfolio worth more than $5 billion and which includes 59,000 apartments.

But that portfolio doesn’t include student apartments because “that’s just a different animal than we’re accustomed to.”

Bell considered the niche, but with the complexity of leasing by the bedroom, providing furniture and social activities, it’s something the company chose to pass on.

But other companies are making a splash in the investment world. Campus Crest Communities of Charlotte is a student-focused company that recently priced stock for sale on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company hopes to raise $354 million.

Nix said that with competition growing, companies have to watch their balance sheets very carefully — just as carefully as they watch the condition of their properties.

That’s why Place Properties conducts regular inspections in apartments: so students know not to damage anything, but also to guarantee to the next renter that everything is taken care of.

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Katherine Bell likes to have fun and go out with friends, but having the anchor of a nice place to live lets her work out at the clubhouse gym, make friends in the clubhouse or go see friends in other apartments.

And with a sunny atrium living room to hang out in, she’s glad she lives here: close to campus, but not too close.

“You walk into other apartments,” she said, “and the quality is not going to be as nice as this.”

[news-record.com]

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