Hopson Flats Hopping

October 8, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Even though the apartment complex hasn’t officially opened, and it won’t formally do so until later this week, Hopson Flats already has more tenants than the building’s developers expected at this early point in time.

The Elevation Group and the D.A. Gulker Group of Fusion Properties have spent much of the past year converting a pair of five-story warehouses at 212-216 Grandville Ave. SW into 42 rental units, and they’re showing off their finished project with a grand opening event for the distinctive student housing complex on Thursday.

The 42 apartments are a mix of two-, three- and four-bedroom units; all totaled there are 148 bedrooms in Hopson Flats. A hundred of those were leased in August, and 15 more will be leased when the second semester of school starts. Rents range from $400 to $520 a month.

“We had projected 85 would be leased in the entire first year, and we’ve already hit that mark in the first semester. So we’re very pleased with the response we’ve had,” said John Green, principal of The Elevation Group.

All the tenants are college students, as are those on the waiting list. They were the only demographic group the developers targeted for the project. What distinguishes Hopson Flats from many other student-housing efforts is that the developers turned to potential tenants to help design and market the apartments.

Instead of marketing the complex to the local colleges, Green said they marketed it through the schools. They first unveiled their idea for Hopson Flats to a marketing class at Grand Valley State University and asked those students what would make a complex attractive to them.

“We then hired four Grand Valley State student interns, who were involved in the marketing, design and research. We wanted to get a feeling of what it was they wanted to see in this type of project because, quite frankly, student living is dramatically different than from when I went to school and we didn’t want to make a mistake of designing something for the past,” said Green.

Hopson Flats LLC, the firm the developers created for the project, also surveyed students at other local colleges to get their input and compiled those results with the Grand Valley State findings. All the research led to a vastly different living arrangement than most college students have experienced and a building that is loaded with the amenities they reported they wanted.

Hopson Flats has a fitness center, an aerobics area, a study lounge, a laundry facility that uses tenant-issued debit cards rather than coins, and, perhaps the most important amenity, a first-floor game room. The game room has a lounge with a large-screen television, a sound system, a pool table, ping pong table and shuffleboard table, and a meeting area.

“The idea was to create a sense of community with the project itself, a place where students from various schools could congregate, socialize and study together. It’s worked out real well. I’ve been there several times just to observe it, and I’ve often found 20 or 30 people in the lounge at a time,” said Green.

The students also had an impact on how the apartments were designed and leased. Rather than renting a unit in the traditional manner — where students share the expenses for the whole living space — Hopson Flats residents actually lease only their bedrooms, and the rest of the unit is common space for those living in that particular apartment.

The difference means that when one student moves out of an apartment, the others don’t have to find a new roommate to pay that portion of the lease, and their rents don’t rise if a roommate leaves or misses a monthly payment. And by leasing bedrooms rather than units, the complex can have 148 renters living in the 42 apartments.

“If you were to walk through a unit, you would think it looks like a traditional four-bedroom apartment. But what’s unique is that each of the bedrooms are individually leased and secured, meaning they’re locked to the other residents,” said Green.

“In a four-bedroom, we have two bathrooms and a large kitchen and living area that is shared by the four residents,” he added.

The research indicated to the developers that the students didn’t want the separate dining area found in most apartments. So instead, a combination bar and table was built in the kitchen area, and that change gave the tenants more living space.

URS Corp. designed Hopson Flats and the D.A. Gulker Group managed the construction. When all the bills come in, the developers will likely have invested nearly $9 million into the project. An agreement they have with the Downtown Development Authority required them to spend at least $5 million on construction.

Hopson Flats also has about 10,000 square feet of retail space available on the first floor and 11,000 square feet for lease in the basement. Green said they’re leaning toward turning the basement into self-storage space for downtown condominium owners, but haven’t done so yet because they’re hoping to draw a restaurant to the ground floor and that tenant might need some storage or refrigeration space in the basement.

“We are in negotiations with two parties on the retail space — one I can’t disclose and am really excited about. I’m hoping that at the grand opening, I’ll be able to announce it,” he said.

Green also said they never considered converting the warehouses into a condo complex because the building isn’t quite right for that type of development.

“The way the building lays out, we have several apartments that have bedrooms without windows, and in the condo market that won’t fly. But for students, that has not been a concern at all,” he said.

The need for student housing wasn’t the only reason why the developers built Hopson Flats. Green said other developments near Grandville Avenue and Cherry Street also served as incentives for the project.

He said The Rapid Central Station, the new homes for Founder’s Brewery and the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, being near the growing downtown entertainment district, and the street work the DDA paid for all played positive roles in their decision.

“Those all are key elements, I feel, to our success so far.”

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