Cutting-edge student housing Creates a neighborhood

October 30, 2010
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The construction market for student housing is transforming to another level and Wolverine Building Group is near the core of that change. The company is working with developers who are revolutionizing and personalizing the experience of university living.

For decades, college students shared dormitory rooms that didn’t offer kitchens or even bathrooms. More recently, developers such as Locus Development and Fusion Properties have renovated vacant buildings into off-campus apartments with private kitchens and baths and common spaces for entertaining and studying.

But Capstone Cos., based in Birmingham, Ala., is pushing the market’s envelope even further by building villages of rather luxurious private and semi-private residences, called cottages, for students to rent. Wolverine Vice President Curt Mulder, who directs student-housing projects for the local firm, said Capstone first came up with the idea to transform the market about 15 years ago.

“What Capstone has been doing the last five years is to take all that they’ve done to another step. Now they’re developing cottage developments. The project we’re doing for them in East Lansing is not a cottage development, but they’re looking to do that in other places here in Michigan,” said Mulder.

“If you take an apartment, whether it has one, two, three or five bedrooms, Capstone is making those stand-alone apartments literally stand-alone homes or, in their terms, a cottage. These are high density, but very tight, close communities of small cottages,” he said.

“It’s a house. It’s a little, tiny cottage standing alone with nothing connected to it.”

Capstone, which has developed housing for students for 20 years, is finishing up a project the firm calls “The Cottages at Baton Rouge.” The first phase of construction created 606 beds in 36 cottages that range from one to five bedrooms. The village’s amenities include a fitness center, tanning beds, entertainment rooms, a pool, and tennis and volleyball courts.

“They’ve got these little pods of communities that they’re trying to create within the greater community of the overall development,” said Mulder. “It’s gone to the complete opposite (from the dorm decades) and almost to creating individual houses for people.”

Mulder said another huge trend in student housing is that universities are getting out of the market. Colleges are now sending RFPs to developers offering them an opportunity to buy existing dorms on campuses and renovate the units, or raze the structures and build new ones that would be operated, in part, by the higher-education institutions.

“It becomes really a public-private partnership, and really through that partnership both are getting the best of both worlds. A university is getting cutting-edge student housing. A developer is getting housing that maybe isn’t necessarily guaranteed, but it is a whole lot more closely tied to the university’s requirements than any private development ever would be,” he said.

The project Wolverine is building and that Mulder is overseeing for Capstone is The Lodges of East Lansing, which is comprised of six, three-story English Tudor-style structures that offer 683 beds in 220 separate units with one to four bedrooms and a 5,000-square-foot community clubhouse. The Lodges is located on 16 acres at 2700 Hannah Blvd., and Capstone is pitching the units and the accompanying lifestyle to Michigan State University students.

The development will feature fireplaces, big-screen TVs and patio grills. It will have a 24-hour fitness center, heated outdoor pool, hot tubs, saunas, tanning beds, volleyball court, billiard tables, ice-skating rink and even a bocce-ball court.

Even though The Lodges isn’t a cottage development, its overreaching goal is to produce a neighborhood.

“This has been designed in such a way to create much more of a community or even a row-house deal to them. They’ve got a Main Street, and when you drive down it there are these tall, narrow buildings with the fronts facing the street. So if there is some activity in the street, it spills into the unit spaces,” said Mulder. “That’s the biggest trend I see happening, and Capstone is really on the cutting edge of that.”

The project is expected to be finished in July. Students began checking out the model unit in mid-October during the university’s housing fair. Most students line up their living arrangements for the following year during the month-long fair.

In addition to The Lodges, Wolverine also managed the redevelopment of the Durant Hotel in Flint. Once known as that city’s finest convention hotel, it now offers 94 residential units to students attending the University of Michigan in Flint. More than 70 percent of the apartments were leased by the end of September; the building is expected to be near capacity within its first year. The project’s developer was Buildtech Ltd., its budget was $22 million, and commercial space is available on the garden level and ground floor.

“This is really what you might call an adaptive reuse or a historic renovation of an existing building into student housing. That’s just another great opportunity where developers are mixing public financing and a private need together. What I mean by that is, you’ve got old buildings and you’ve got historic tax credits available to developers. Then you’ve got student housing on the other side, which is one of the few private developments that banks are loaning money for. So you put those together and you’ve got a viable development,” said Mulder.

“We are pursuing two other (student housing) projects with Capstone but both are very preliminary, I guess, at this point,” he added. “One is in New Hampshire and another project is in Ohio.”

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