How Developers Implement Seriously Smart Amenities in Student Housing
Student housing amenities used to have a reputation in the popular press and in most multifamily circles for over-the-top extravagance.
“Millennials came into the space when it was an all-out amenities war,” says Madison Meier, vice president of business development at Austin, Texas-based Campus Advantage. “Everyone was on standby wondering, ‘What’s going to be the next big thing? Lazy river? Climbing wall? Golf simulator? It felt like every developer was grasping at straws to find their unique, defining amenity.”
A generational changing of the guard, along with rising construction costs, has muted some of those larger-than-life community perks. The New York Times recently interviewed Campus Advantage about this very topic, having caught wind of the company’s promotion of its intangible “success amenities.”
The article, published on June 25, says student housing amenities today directly support the gig economy through shared study spaces, sophisticated digital networks and well-planned fitness centers. Mental, social and financial health are the main aspirations of Gen Z, where extravagance takes the form of Peloton bikes and creatively designed, high-tech study nooks that do double duty as flexible social space.
Campus Advantage’s success amenities are provided by its Students First residence life program, which preps students to thrive in the new economy, where self-employment and self-promotion is important. Communities offer services such as Rent Track, which allows residents with on-time rent payments to establish a credit score while living at a Campus Advantage property. Event programming includes interactive seminars, such as resume critiques, or bringing in suits, jackets and other professional clothing and a professional photographer so that students can take headshots for profiles like LinkedIn.
“We’ve been trying to put these services at the forefront of our marketing,” Meier says. “It used to be something we marketed once the students signed leases. We’ve trained our leasing teams to say not only do we have these physical amenities, but we also offer these other unique experiences. This generation has responded very well to this.”
Jennifer Fraser, senior director of real estate with Greystar, which has approximately 30 off-campus projects in the development pipeline, says that Gen Z’s needs begin and end with Internet. “As we all know, Gen Zs are technologically very savvy,” she says. “They own an average of five internet-ready devices at any given time, and 91 percent use social media to stay connected. Amazing wifi, location to campus, security and comfort are all more critical today than the old-school luxury of highly amenitized spaces.”
To provide better internet, American Campus Communities (ACC) has started removing cable from its properties. The savings from the former cable expenses can be invested in increasing bandwidth, according to Jake Newman, senior vice president of development at American Campus Communities.
Across the board, developers say that, after Internet and location, study space is the number one amenity students want. On paper, providing study space seems like it should be a no-brainer. Isn’t it more or less a place to sit and plug up devices? How can it be an alluring amenity? Most developers are giving careful thought to how they can differentiate study space.
Student Quarters recently took a field trip to study some WeWork offices, to better understand how to do study/gig-economy space well. “It’s one thing to talk about co-working areas, lounges and collaborative spaces, but I don’t think many execute it as well as WeWork,” says Jonathan Wood, Student Quarters’ chief development officer.
“It doesn’t work if you can’t design it, program it, curate it or execute it well. I had the privilege of hearing Ron Pompei speak at an ICSC (International Council of Shopping Centers) event. He was the design vision behind many brands, notably Anthropologie. His message about creating an environment that is ‘stimulating’ really stuck with me. If we go to retrofit a former gaming room that isn’t utilized and we want to program an open social space, we can’t just shove in a coffee machine, some funky colored chairs the designer has used for its other four customers and a shuffleboard table.”
Instead, like Anthropologie, the company aims to stimulate the senses and attract students to spaces through textures, smell, sound, lighting and art. Wood says at new developments, he likes to collaborate with local proprietors, whether that includes adding a mixed-use component for a cafe or bike shop, or at universities with strong music programs, perhaps a jam room. If a university or college is heavy on visual artists, then common space can double as a place to hang and display art as well as a setting for artist receptions with wine and cheese or a local chef delivering the menu. “I’m not interested in becoming a ‘commodity player,’” says Wood. “We take a more boutique and homegrown approach to this business, and it often takes us down different paths.”
Developer Core Spaces has more than 15,000 beds in the pipeline with 2,432 of those beds delivering in August, and is known for its amenities and design, having won the 2019 Student Housing Business Innovator Award for Best Package & Offering of Amenities for the Hub on Campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. According to Ari Richman, development analyst with Core Spaces, the hottest amenities today are rooftop pools, multifunctional training in fitness centers and study and co-working space.
“Our newest amenity we are implementing in our developments is co-working space,” says Richman. “We are providing flexible work environments where tenants can collaborate, innovate and build their ideas.”
Greystar is also prioritizing similar spaces in new developments: “We have incorporated several co-working-space concepts in the expansion of study lounges with flexible seating options to accommodate independent study, lounging and groups,” Fraser says. “Spaces that incorporate multiple device charging locations and nook options.”
At ACC, the demand for study space was confirmed from annual surveys of more than 130,000 residents. ACC adjusts its development approach based on the feedback of its students. “We had witnessed this shift even without surveying our residents, as evidenced by seeing them take billiard and poker tables and convert them to study tables,” says Newman. In response, ACC has increased the size of its study centers and rebranded them as Academic Success Centers, which are designed around a coffee-shop ethos.
When Meier advises developers, she boils down study space into four basic types: large group spaces, small group study rooms that fit four to five students, individual study spaces, and social study spaces — the spaces that most resemble bustling coffee shops where students can study individually but be surrounded by their peers in a social setting.
Campus Advantage has been tapped to manage Moontower in Austin when it opens in fall 2020. The 18-story, 567-bed project devotes an entire floor just to study space. “These developers [Lincoln Ventures] have designed a very innovative study space that will definitely attract this generation of students,” Meier says. “They’ve incorporated all of the different types of study space into this floor. They have the social, the booths, the private study rooms, and it is all designed around the WeWork concept.”
Like study space, package management is another amenity that lacks the sizzle of the Millennial bacchanal but is a critical piece of a new development that aims to be competitive. “I talk to leaders in the student and conventional multifamily space all the time,” says James Whitley, chief operating officer of Landmark Properties, which has about $2 billion worth of development under construction and a pipeline of approximately 22,000 beds. “Everyone is wrestling with deciding the best path forward. We all know more and more boxes are coming. It’s a very meaningful, very real challenge everyone across student and multifamily is grappling with.” Having beta tested numerous solutions, Landmark found that a package room suited its needs better than lockers.
Food delivery and Uber accommodations are similar amenities that may not rank high in the excitement factor but that really appeal to students and reflect how people dine and live today. “We’ve seen some developers considering Uber pickup spots at their property as an amenity,” Meier says. “We’ve also seen a developer put in a pick-up, drop-off space for food delivery.”
Greystar has also begun offering car share programs specifically dedicated to its residents. ACC is incorporating mobility solutions into its properties, including an upcoming pilot partnership with Uber’s JUMP bicycles at the University of Texas. The partnership enables outfitting ACC properties with JUMP bicycle-charging stations.
On-trend amenity packages focus on wellness by way of fitness centers and even fresh markets. “We’ve surveyed students, and they really want access to groceries, and healthy options are really important, such as smoothies, wraps, salads and sparkling water,” Meier says.
For Landmark, rising construction costs can affect how to program wellness amenities. “It’s just the reality, construction costs, materials costs, just about every facet of construction is up,” says Whitley. “So to make the numbers work, we’re working diligently to deliver more in less space. How do you do that and still make the amenities appealing? For us, we’re opting for pieces that have more panache. For example, we’re implementing Peloton bikes in a number of our assets and some of the Peloton treads. That high-end equipment goes a long way in catching your eye.”
ACC offers similar fitness options. “Our health and wellness priority manifests in fitness centers with state-of-the-art equipment that we purchase for quality, durability and longevity,” says Newman. “Our fitness centers incorporate both cardio and strength-training options for residents, along with a yoga room and spin bikes. To us the formula is simple: student wellbeing, academic achievement and comfort are what matter most.”
— Lynn Peisner. This article originally ran in the July/August issue of Student Housing Business magazine.