Gilbane Earns High Marks for Off-Campus Housing

Colleges are now competing on the basis of housing amenities in recruitment and retention of students.

By Jeffrey Steele, Contributing Writer

Providence, R.I.—Three years ago, a team of Providence, R.I., executives displayed the kind of critical thinking skills worthy of top marks in the most rigorous college business program. Mulling the Great Recession’s decimation of individual 401k plans and state budgets, Gilbane Development Company execs made two deductions.

First, they reasoned, lots more parents would be sending their college-bound sons and daughters to lower-cost state—not private—schools. Second, cash-strapped states would be hard-pressed to finance new housing to accommodate all these additional students. Their conclusion: Build more student housing, both on-campus and off-campus, at state-owned universities around the country.

The wisdom of that philosophy was confirmed in August 2011, when Gilbane Development Company’s 8-½ Canal Street student housing development opened at fast-growing Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, having attained 100 percent occupancy prior to its unveiling.

The new student housing at VCU is not owned by the university, “but before we build off-campus housing, we meet with the university’s president and chief financial officer, and let them know what we’re doing,” Gilbane Development Co. chairman and CEO Bob Gilbane tellsMHN. “It’s another selling point that attracts students to the school. It allows the university to better spend its money on its core mission, whether it’s a business school or an engineering building.”

Colleges are now competing on the basis of housing amenities in recruitment and retention of students, so “the product itself is very important,” Gilbane says, noting 8-½ Canal Street is less than a half mile from the center of VCU’s campus, and stands eight stories tall with two stories (200 spaces) of parking and 540 beds across six residential floors. Every bedroom has a private bath, suites have full kitchens, and every one of the 160 living rooms boasts a 42-inch high-definition TV. Suites come with modern furniture and wood-style flooring.

“We have a very large, professionally-done fitness center, private group study rooms, cybercafé, and pool and ping-pong tables,” Gilbane says. “We also have given the students two private courtyards with barbecue grills.”

The challenge, as it is for many student housing developments, was meeting an accelerated timetable for completion. “Successful student housing is different from typical multifamily housing,” Gilbane says. “You have to complete it and deliver it by the fall semester. If you miss that, you’re dead for a full year.”

The deadline was met by instituting six and often seven-day-a-week construction schedules. As fall semester neared, the team outfitted 540 bedrooms, 160 living rooms and all the amenity space in a three-week stretch, Gilbane says.

What does 8-½ Canal Street mean to VCU and beyond that, Richmond itself?

Says Gilbane: “If 540 students weren’t living in this community, they’d be living out in rental houses or apartments throughout the city, and driving rents up. So this contributes to affordable housing.”

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