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December 27, 2011

Dorms growing market for developers

By MARC STILES
Journal Staff Reporter

William Wright Photography [enlarge]
The Douglas at Seattle University was developed by a private group that has a 75-year ground lease on the site. Hewitt designed the $23 million project and Walsh Construction was the contractor.

Thirty years ago, college students lived in twos and threes in spaces about the size of a large living room. The kitchen consisted of a hot plate and maybe a miniature fridge. The bathroom down the hall was shared by everyone on the floor.

The Douglas, a new residence hall at Seattle University, shows how much things have changed.

Students live in suites, not rooms. In a four-person unit, there’s a bedroom for each person, two full baths, a small living room and a full kitchen with a dishwasher. You still have to schlep your laundry down to the first floor, though the machines send a text message when the load is done.

Heidi Turner, a consultant who worked on the project, says this is the future of campus housing. Today’s students want both a sense of community and a sense of privacy, said Turner, who is with the Seattle property management company Blanton Turner, which helped plan the $23 million Douglas at 1223 E. Cherry St.

Demand for student housing is greater than ever, leading to some big projects. The largest locally is the University of Washington’s $800 million program. When it’s done in about 10 years, there will be 2,000 new beds on the Seattle campus.

Private firms

The Douglas was developed by a private group that has a 75-year ground lease on the site. Seneca Group of Seattle was hired to manage the project, which has 259 beds, groundfloor retail and 47 stalls of underground parking.

Seneca Group is active in student housing, and is also working on some UW projects. A representative from Seneca said this cycle of student housing development is at the mid point. Gen Y will feed it for another three to five years.

Another round of projects is expected because aging residence halls need to be replaced or refurbished.

Private development of student housing isn’t new. Nationally, it’s big business with publicly traded companies in on the action. In Seattle, private developers are doing more student housing.

Another Seattle company, Hunters Capital, included some housing for students at Seattle Central Community College in its $32 million Broadway Building that opened last year across the street from the school.

The UW gets help from private companies, including Blanton Turner and Seneca Group, but does not turn to private groups to fund dormitory projects, said David Rey, a university spokesman.

A year ago, Seattle U was looking for developers and investors for another mixed-use project with housing at 12th Avenue and East Spring Street, but that project is on “indefinite hold,” said the university’s associate vice president for facilities, Rob Schwartz.

The university has other projects and is evaluating its priorities, said Schwartz, who did not elaborate. Another SU official, spokeswoman Stacy Howard, said expansion of student housing will be considered after the university renovates or replaces current facilities.

The Douglas is SU’s first new dorm in 21 years. Students pay between $875 and $1,325 a month, and occupancy is more than 95 percent. Turner expects occupancy to rise when winter quarter starts.

The retail is also mostly leased. SU rents some space, along with Cherry Street Coffee and Mountain Flow Yoga. Turner said students don’t want national chains. Ann Marie Koehler and Charles Grinstein of CBRE are marketing the commercial space.

Timing was good for The Douglas, but student housing is not just a “build-it-and-they-will-come” proposition, Turner said. Schools complete for top students, and housing is an important part of recruiting. Plus, she said, students have options and can easily rent apartments off campus.

Focus groups

The Douglas shows it takes foresight to create housing that will attract students, and marketing helps, too.

Turner said they took a lot of care to give students what they want. Through focus groups, the team learned students like an architecturally interesting, sustainable project that offers safety and a sense of community.

The Douglas’ wireless network is integrated into SU’s network, and a video camera lets residents see who is at the front door on their laptops. Large windows let in natural light, and a large central courtyard is well landscaped. There’s a community kitchen in the common area, along with rooms for study, games and media.

“If you listen to what your customers tell you they want,” Turner said, “it is much easier to figure out how please them.”

Feedback led to a big change in the color palette. Designers proposed a lot of bright red, but students said the colors reminded them of nursery school. They wanted something modern and sophisticated, so The Douglas ended up with a subtler scheme.

The marketing campaign started six months before the fall opening and was built around the identity of the building, which is named for a member of the family that is the primary investor.

“We started with a sense of surprise,” said Turner. The tagline was, “Doug’s here.” On Valentine’s Day, boxes of chocolates were sent to SU students signed “from Doug.”

Facebook, of course, was part of the campaign, which also included Scrabble competitions.

The marketing team struck gold when a hip-hop song called “Teach Me How to Dougie” climbed the charts the year before The Douglas opened. To capitalize, the team hired a dance troupe called the Boom Katzz to “dougie” in a marketing video that was filmed inside one of the units. You can see it at http://tiny.cc/v5u5b.

SU leases some of the groundfloor for common areas as well as for its community engagement program, which brings students and faculty members together with neighbors and groups, a key part of a Jesuit education.


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