Off Campus Goes Upscale
Remember the year you lived off campus
and what your apartment usually looked liked?
Today’s trend in off-campus housing is more upscale.
By Bethany Bradsher
lmost every issue of the student paper is filled with colorful ads for new apartment complexes that have or are about to open around Greenville. With glossy photos of Olympic-size pools and tastefully appointed kitchens, they all shout out offers of free health clubs, big-screen TVs and free wireless Internet.
They’ve all sprung up in the past few years to serve a growing, and more affluent, student market which some estimate at more than 12,000 renters. Throw in several thousand more of the younger faculty and staff, and the local apartment market approaches 20,000 people.
One complex even has a movie theater. The Bellamy, with 1,056 apartments, will open in August about two miles out 10th Street from campus. It already had signed up 500 students for the fall semester.
Apartments there have hardwood floors in every unit, 37-inch or larger flat screen televisions and wireless Internet. “We also have a small movie theater with stadium seating,” said property manager Donna Scurry.
North Campus Crossing (pictured above
) is the largest of the new apartment communities, with 1,692 beds and two pools—one of which features a large Pirate ship. There’s also a full-size gymnasium, indoor and outdoor volleyball courts and an on-site social director who arranges dance and exercise classes.
Located on Highway 264 East about 10 minutes from Main Campus, North Campus Crossing—everyone calls it NCC—has the added attraction of sitting beside ECU’s new North Recreation Complex. The 59-acre facility offers several sports fields that can be sized for soccer, flag football, lacrosse, ultimate Frisbee and rugby. There’s a six-acre lake with a sunbathing beach served by a field house with restrooms, covered seating and ample parking.
The Exchange, near The Bellamy off Fire Tower Road, makes hot chocolate chip cookies every day and offers 24-hour study rooms with computers. Copper Beech, appropriately located near the entrance to Brook Valley Country Club about a mile out 10th Street, aims for the top of the market with a “True Separation” soundproofing system and an optional furniture package.
Many are gated and equipped with high-tech security systems. They aren’t cheap. A three-bedroom, three-bath unit at North Campus Crossing with 1,188 square feet of space leases for $485 a month per person. The apartment comes with brushed nickel hardware, ceiling fans, a refrigerator with icemaker, washer and dryer, a microwave and garbage disposal. A two-bedroom, two bath garden apartment at The Bellamy is $504 per person. A four-bedroom townhome at Copper Beech goes for $455 a month per student. A bus ride away
Because these new communities generally are a few miles from Main Campus and the bars downtown, they have to make it easy for students to get around. They pay the university to be linked to the student transit system; at North Campus Crossing students can catch a bus to campus every 10 minutes.
ECU housing officials seem to view the apartment complexes not as competitors but as collaborators in the university’s drive to accommodate its surging enrollment. With little land available on the Main Campus and no new dormitories planned, East Carolina needed housing alternatives.
The off-campus housing boom hasn’t hurt the dormitories. Associate director of campus living Aaron Lucier reports that nearly 82 percent of freshmen choose to live in one of ECU’s 5,301 dorm rooms. The last new dorm to be built on campus, College Hill Suites, opened in 2006. It offers some upscale touches, like kitchenettes in every unit, for more money and stays full.
With all the dorms full, that still leaves more than 10,000 upperclassmen who choose to live off campus, and many are opting for the big-box complexes with the long list of amenities. Suffering in this competition are the older complexes and neighborhoods that just a few years ago were the hot spots for students. Pirates Cove and other familiar neighborhoods nearer to campus are losing tenants to the new places. Places that once had waiting lists now have several vacancies.
This leads some to wonder if developers are overbuilding the market.
“We’re building all these complexes, and then the complexes that used to be in existence back then are not the prime real estate anymore,” said Michelle Lieberman, ECU’s director for off-campus and community living. She believes some out-of-town developers based their plans just on East Carolina’s enrollment growth and didn’t factor in that about 4,000 are distance education students. An adult student taking Internet classes from Missouri has no need for an apartment.
“Our actual rental population that I work with is about 10 to 12 thousand, and it has stayed pretty steady,”
she adds. Students are the winners
Of course, the winners in this competitive market are the students, with each complex trying to be more lavish, more convenient and less expensive than its competitors. Each touts a distinctive supply of bells and whistles.
But as hard as each apartment community markets itself, students’ decisions often have less to do with the number of tanning beds than by where their friends live. Sophomore Baird Blackley from Shelby has lived in the dorms for two years—first in Umstead and this year in College Hill Suites—but she signed a lease at Copper Beech for fall semester.
Blackley and her three dorm roommates were drawn by the convenience and the privacy of Copper Beech, she said, and because they don’t have to buy a meal plan. She says they will actually shell out a little less than they paid to stay in the dorm. “My roommates’ parents were a little concerned that they weren’t built yet,” she said of the Copper Beech community going up on 10th Street. “But they have until August, and I know they’ll be finished.”
Sophomore Bryan Strothmann from Raleigh has gone full circle on his housing choices. He spent his freshman year in the dorm. Then he moved to NCC his sophomore year, attracted by old roommates who had moved there and the lure of easy parking. But he has had enough of big-box apartment living, he said. Next year he’s moving to a three-bedroom house on Elm Street just off campus.
“We wanted to be closer to campus,” said Strothmann, who will divide rent payments with his roommates and figure out utility costs. “And it’s training for the real world.”
At their Elm Street house, Strothmann and his roommates will be an increasingly rare breed at ECU—off-campus renters who are close enough to actually walk to class or their fraternity or sorority house. The neighborhoods east of campus remain attractive, but the city has cracked down on renters. Greenville now strictly enforces a “three-to-a-house” rule.
The luxuries that North Campus Crossing offered were nice, said his roommate, junior Reid Warren, but they were ready for something different. In their case it was the classic experience of living in a big, drafty old house an easy walk from classes. “If I was going to live in an apartment it would be this one, but I just got tired of it,” Warren said.
The dorms aren’t bad
Just as the new apartment communities offer a different standard of living than a generation ago, on-campus living also has gotten better. Today’s residence halls are not your father’s dormitories. All ECU dorms except Belk Hall are air-conditioned, have 63 cable channels with wireless Internet, and free washers and dryers (no more searching for quarters). The newest dorm, College Hill Suites (right
), is open only to nonfreshmen and has kitchenettes in each unit.
Most dorms have computer labs equipped with Windows and Apple computers and printers. Free newspapers are delivered daily.
It costs $4,250 a semester to live on campus, and most dorm residents choose to buy a meal plan. It’s more expensive to live on campus, but there are many benefits.
When Lucier and his colleagues talk about the advantages of dormitory living, they emphasize proximity to classes, supervision, security and the importance of experiencing life with a roommate.
“The connection to the community that they’re going to receive living on campus, in terms of living, breathing and eating the college experience, is much more intense than it would 10 miles down the road,” Lucier said. “And living with a roommate is also a good experience. We tell parents that learning how to share possessions is a very important skill.”
Lieberman also believes in the myriad of benefits for freshmen to stay in the dorms, and she promotes that decision to families whenever possible. But as the choices become more appealing, she sees a trend away from the dormitory experience.
“I try to get to the parents and say, look, they’re going to benefit from living on campus the first year, let them get grounded and then they can move off campus,” she said. “But the trend now is to move off campus. We have to work on improving what we have here in order to compete.”