By Mallory Bulman
The corner of New York nicknamed the Triple Cities has contributed more than its share of prominent names to American business: IBM, General Electric and Valvoline, to name only three. But like so many other once-thriving industrial regions, the area anchored by Binghamton, Endicott and Johnson City has struggled for decades to improve its economic fortunes.
Yet the region may still have an ace in the hole: Binghamton University, a state school located eight miles west in Vestal, N.Y. Some 7,000 of the university’s 13,000-plus undergraduates live off campus, constituting a powerful force for the regional economy and its rental housing market in particular.
During the 2014-2015 academic year alone, undergrads spent nearly $125 million, and campus visitors dropped an additional $7.8 million into local coffers. That demand is prompting developers to repurpose former industrial sites and office buildings as student housing, as well as invest in ground-up development.
Laying the groundwork
The roots of today’s activity extend back to at least 2007, when Binghamton University made its first foray into its namesake city with the opening of a $27 million facility that houses its College of Community and Public Affairs. Located on Washington Street in downtown Binghamton, the facility has helped foster art galleries, shops and restaurants that help make the neighborhood attractive to multifamily developers.
Another enticement is the availability of payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) programs. This year, five qualifying student housing projects that have been completed since 2012 will save between 52 percent and 90 percent in city tax payments, about $1 million in all, according to city data.
Several of the new communities took a roundabout path to reinvention. Built in 1904 as the home of the Binghamton Press newspaper, the 12-story Beaux Arts landmark at 19 Chenango St. reigned as the city’s tallest building until 1972. By December 2010, it was a multitenant office building when a fire broke out next door at the Midtown Mall, a vacant five-building complex. (Ironically, that neighboring property was in the midst of conversion to student housing at the time.) Though untouched by the flames, the Press Building sustained severe water damage.
In the first stage of the Press Building’s latest chapter, Mark Yonaty, a local developer, restored the 92,400-square-foot building, then sold it to an affiliate of Tryad Group, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based developer, for $2.1 million. The new ownership acquired the adjacent properties at 21 Chenango St. and 25 Chenango St., connected the buildings with a shared basement, and created a 300-bed student housing community.
Collectively dubbed the Printing House, the buildings comprise 100,000 square feet of apartment and ground-floor retail space and offer units ranging in size from one to five bedrooms. Located near popular bars and restaurants as well as the campus shuttle service, the Printing House is outfitted with a fitness center, hot tubs, study centers, a gaming room and a barbershop.
Conversion to student housing is giving more than one notable Binghamton office building a fresh start. Constructed in the early 1970s, the Marine Midland Trust Company Building was the flagship of the city’s urban renewal program, as well as a rare local example of the International Design School. Located just off Washington Street at 20 Hawley St., the property occupies an entire block next door to the university’s downtown center.
The Marine Midland Building’s 166,870 square feet gave its developer, Alfred Weissman Real Estate Group LLC, plenty of room to build out an attractive amenity package. Highlights include a yoga studio, underground parking, a resort-style hot tub deck, gas grills in an outdoor lounge, a golf simulator, a movie theater and café, and multiple study lounges.
Among other highlights, the configuration of the original offices allows a private bathroom for every bedroom, a selling point for prospective residents. And 20 Hawley retains the floor-to-ceiling windows from its original purpose as an office building. While its amenities entice residents, the community also does its part to boost the local economy by bringing welcome foot traffic to local businesses.
Demand for student housing is also affecting the market close to campus. A case in point is U Club Binghamton, a 710-bed community near campus that was acquired by American Campus Communities in 2015. It features a full battery of amenities: a clubhouse, a recreation center, fitness facilities, study lounges and a hot tub with a sun deck. Shuttle service to campus and downtown Binghamton is available. Also in the pipeline is U Club Binghamton’s second phase: a $55.8 million development comprising four- and five-bedroom townhomes. That project will add 560 beds to the local inventory when it opens this fall.
The expansion of U Club Binghamton promises to offer another boost for nearby businesses, like the retailers at University Plaza, the retail center located next door. Nearby spaces that once housed call centers and insurance offices now host a variety of student-friendly businesses, such as CoreLife Eatery, Planet Fitness, Five Guys, Insomnia Cookies, Tully’s and CopperTop Tavern.
“The university was excited about creating a university village with retail and restaurants, close to campus, yet giving students an opportunity to live off campus,” Marc Newman of Newman Development Group recalled earlier this year in an interview with the Press & Sun Bulletin. The firm is the owner of University Plaza and the developer of the five-year-old Twin River Commons, downtown Binghamton’s first student housing community.
As these examples suggest, the revitalization of Binghamton and its neighboring cities will unfold project by project and block by block. If that effort eventually fulfills its potential, a handful of student housing communities, along with the university itself, will play no small role in giving the region its second wind.
Originally appearing in the June 2017 issue of MHN.