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Private firms buy 28 acres near UB to build student housing

A pair of national real estate firms has teamed up to buy a 28-acre site in Amherst near University at Buffalo’s North Campus, where they plan to spend $30 million to construct a new student housing complex with 640 beds.

A joint venture between Harrison Street Real Estate Capital and University Student Living wants to build eight four-story residential buildings and a single-story clubhouse on land adjacent to Ellicott Creek, according to attorney Corey Auerbach of Damon Morey LLP, who represents the developers.

The joint venture paid $5.675 million to acquire the land from an affiliate of Weinberg Campus called Menorah Campus Inc. The property at 2091 Sweet Home Road is directly off the access ramp to the Lockport Expressway’s second exit.

The 300,000-square-foot project would include 192 apartments, consisting of a mixture of two-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments. It would be accessible from Sweet Home via a road called Herron Drive that winds toward the creek.

Amenities would include a pool, volleyball courts and other features, although those details are not yet solidified, Auerbach said. “There’s going to be a full slate of amenities,” he said.

The privately funded and privately owned project was approved by the Amherst Planning Board on Jan. 15, for a second time, so no other permission is needed. Workers have already begun to prepare the site for construction, which is slated to finish by fall of 2016. “It’s got to be ready for that school year,” Auerbach said.

The new complex is the latest case of developers pursuing student housing projects based on the recent and projected growth of UB. The university currently has 5,200 beds in its traditional residence halls and another 2,300 beds in on-campus apartments – at both the North and South campuses – after adding 2,410 beds on the North Campus since 1998.

“It’s the largest school in the SUNY system,” said Tom George, vice president of development for University Student Living, and a Rochester native. “It’s a strong student housing market. It’s growing with relatively little off-campus private student housing.”

But its UB 2020 master plan calls for more dorm rooms and apartments in coming years. About 7,500 of UB’s 29,000 students live on campus. And private firms are building off-campus options, such as the Villas on Rensch, Villas at Chestnut Ridge and University Village at Sweethome.

“UB does not endorse off-campus apartments, though we help students make good choices regarding living off campus,” said school spokesman John DellaContrada.

The Sweet Home site had been previously targeted by North Carolina-based Campus Crest Communities for a 584-bed student housing complex called Grove at Buffalo, with 216 suite-style dormitory units in a total of 10 four-story buildings. That project was approved by planners in 2013.

But Campus Crest abruptly pulled out of the development, along with another student housing project at 100 Forest Ave. in the city of Buffalo for which it had also received municipal approval. Instead, it assigned the development rights in Amherst to University Student Living, while another firm, DHD Ventures, purchased the property in Buffalo for its own planned $25 million redevelopment.

University Student Living, together with Harrison Street, then had to resubmit a modified Amherst site design to the town, after realizing that the wetlands on the property were in “a slightly different place than initially thought,” Auerbach said.

Auerbach did not handle the original project for Campus Crest, but the law firm did represent that developer at 100 Forest, and is now working for both of the new developers on the two projects. University Student Living also used the same engineering firm, Rochester-based Passero Associates, as Campus Crest.

“This location has all the ingredients needed for a successful student housing property,” said Dorothy Jackman, co-managing director of Colliers International’s Student Housing Group, which handled the sale on behalf of Weinberg.

The new apartment complex is not part of UB’s on-campus housing, and there is no affiliation with the school. Auerbach said University Student Living will rebrand the site with a new name and logo, but hasn’t completed that process.

Harrison Street is a private-equity firm focused on real estate that was founded in 2005 and manages about $7.5 billion in assets through funds and other investments in education, health care and storage properties.

University Student Living is a subsidiary of the Michaels Organization, a 40-year-old privately held company with eight subsidiaries that focus on affordable, mixed-finance, military and student housing.