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Upscale student housing comes to Buff State, changing neighborhood

Several hundred students at SUNY Buffalo State are experiencing a different level of living as they return this month and take up residence in a new off-campus apartment complex just steps away from college grounds.

More than 250 upper-class students moved into Campus Walk last week, as the 318-bed facility on Grant Street welcomed its first occupants. Others are arriving in coming days, and developer Jim Swiezy said he's "pretty confident" that the two buildings will be fully occupied.

"We've got a couple that are still trickling in for the next week or so, but they're on their way," said Elizabeth Fonzi, the facility's general manager.

Meanwhile, nearly 600 students are moving into a much larger and more sprawling student-housing community on Forest Avenue near the intersection of the Niagara Thruway and Scajaquada Expressway. Workers over the weekend were still putting the finishing touches on the last of the nine residential buildings of the $25 million Monarch 716 complex, which is slated to include 176 suites with 592 beds, plus a clubhouse with a two-lane bowling alley  and an outdoor swimming pool.

Officials with developer DHD Ventures of Rochester and Charlotte, N.C., could not be reached for comment, but representatives of Charlotte-based management firm King Residential Group were excited to greet their new residents.  Officials are starting a waiting list for beds.

Campus Walk and the Monarch 716 complex are off-campus options for upperclassmen at SUNY Buffalo State and are transforming the neighborhood.

"We've really had a great response," said company founder and CEO Shannon King.

Owners of the new complexes contend this is a key opportunity to strengthen the neighborhood around campus by tying the college more closely to the community. The school's new visitors' center is now under construction and slated to open next June or July. And Swiezy is quick to point to other projects underway or planned for Grant and Niagara streets nearby.

Exterior of Campus Walk facing Grant Street which has space for three retail outlets that would cater to residents.   (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"If you look at what this neighborhood looked like a year and a half ago, it was a disaster," Swiezy said. "We've not only transformed this into student housing, but we're contributing to changing the community... You're seeing development now that I would never have guessed as recently as two to three years ago."

What those students will see is not what their parents had, or even what they were used to before. Unlike typical dorm rooms at most schools, these students will have their own individual bedrooms and private bathrooms with shower tubs, while still sharing kitchen and living space with up to three other people.

Students at Campus Walk have their own bedroom and bathroom but share the kitchen and living space with others. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

At Campus Walk, the fully furnished units also come with full-sized beds, 52-inch "smart" LG televisions in the common living room, olive-toned microfiber couches and new black kitchen appliances. "It turned out beautiful," Swiezy said. "There's lots of bells and whistles."

At Monarch, the units are also fully furnished with full-sized beds, 48-inch "smart" Sharp TVs, olive-and-gray microfiber sectionals and stainless-steel kitchen appliances. Perhaps even more unique are the other amenities and entertainment options available to students.

"I think they've been excited about what it is that we have to offer," King said. "We're happy to bring a different concept to Buffalo."

The pool area at Monarch 716 in Buffalo Saturday, August 26, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)


 Growing demand

The two simultaneous student housing projects demonstrate the strength of the marketplace for off-campus living, as well as the effort by developers to raise the bar on what they provide. Both welcome students from a variety of schools, including the University at Buffalo, Canisius College, Medaille College and D'Youville College. But they are aimed primarily at one school - nearby Buff State, whose longstanding need for more student housing has been well-documented.

"For both of them to say they're full, that kind of surprises me, but it's a good thing for the college," said Michael F. LeVine, vice president for finance and management. "That shows demand for the college, and it's good for the area."

Buff State was historically a commuter campus, but an increasing number of its 9,400 students now want to live on or near campus. That's been a struggle in recent years, forcing the school to put some students in hotels like the Adams Mark in downtown Buffalo. Last year, the school partnered with Canisius and Medaille to house some students, at a cost of $2 million. "It wasn't something that long-term was viable for us," LeVine said.

From left touring one of the Campus Walk unit's model kitchens, Sarah Witherell, project manager, Emily Thron, regional manager, and Elizabeth Fonzi, general manager. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The school has 2,669 residential beds on campus, but all of them are full and officials are already planning to triple up another 112 students, LeVine said. Other students live on their own in the neighborhood or at Collegiate Village near Kensington Avenue and Eggert Road.  And Buff State's housing master plan calls for renovating some of its dorms, which will take them offline, even as it converts an administration building back to a 200-bed dorm for fall 2018.

So Swiezy's Greenleaf Development and DHD Ventures seized the opportunity. Greenleaf owned some land next door that Buff State sought to purchase, but the developer instead proposed building the facility for the school.

Greenleaf even reached a formal "affiliation agreement" with the school, which backs Campus Walk as the only "preferred" student-housing option off campus. "We work together to make sure the students are taken care of," Swiezy said. "It's been a pretty open dialogue and they have been pretty supportive. They're not endorsing anybody else."

Monarch is further away and lacks a formal relationship with any school, but that hasn't stopped its officials from reaching out and filling their beds. King even purchased a pair of shuttle buses to bring students to campus.

"We're a complementary component from the university, separate and apart," King said. "They haven't worked against us, but they haven't really done anything to benefit us as well."

 Campus Walk

Swiezy built Campus Walk directly adjacent to the campus, after swapping properties to enable Buffalo State to build its visitors' center next door.

Campus Walk features 84 units of two, three and four bedrooms, with rents ranging from $765 per month to $880 per month per person. The more bedrooms - that is, the less privacy a student wants - the lower the rent. So a two-bedroom apartment is more expensive per person than a four-bedroom unit.

"When you add everything up, it's still less than living on campus," Swiezy said.

Each 200-square-foot bedroom comes with a bed with a two-drawer dresser underneath, as well as a desk and chair. Power outlets include USB ports.

General manager Elizabeth Fonzi in the fitness center at Campus Walk which features a Jacob's Ladder machine, medicine balls, other cardio- and weight-training machines, and  free weights. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The apartments all feature high ceilings and large windows; laundry machines; living room furniture like a full-sized couch, chair, entertainment center, coffee table and end table; vinyl-planking floors; kitchens with wood cabinets and granite countertops; and barstools.

Within the buildings, there's also a lounge and activity room used for weekly and monthly events, or even to host student organizations and clubs, as well as an outdoor fire pit and sitting area with park benches. And the complex offers an indoor bike storage area; a computer lab with three Macs, three PCs and a free printer; and a fitness center with equipment such as a Jacob's Ladder machine, medicine balls, other cardio- and weight-training machines, and  free weights.

The rent includes all utilities except electrical service. Security is tight, with over 96 cameras throughout the complex, as well as electronic keyfob access to the buildings, the apartments and individual rooms. And the campus police and "blue light" security phone coverage will extend to the visitor center next door.

The project also includes three retail spaces on the Grant Street side, designed to provide amenities for students such as food services, a convenience store, a coffee or donut shop, or a pizzeria. Swiezy said about 20 to 30 vendors have expressed interest, but the developer narrowed the list to four or five.

To oversee the complex on site, Swiezy hired the nation's No. 1 third-party student housing operator, Houston-based Asset Campus Housing, which manages about 120,000 student beds nationwide. Fonzi, a Buff State alumna who studied hospitality management, works for ACH. "They're obviously very well-versed in how to run a property like this," Swiezy said.

Meanwhile, Greenleaf owns two acres of additional property immediately to the south on Grant, where it is knocking down old houses in preparation for clearing the site and erecting two more buildings. That second phase, with another 320 beds and additional retail space - possibly including a Tim Hortons Cafe & Bake Shop with a drive-thru - would likely begin by June 2018, with completion by fall 2019.

Monarch 716

Monarch offers two-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments. The apartments include nine-foot ceilings, double windows, granite countertops, a kitchen island with a sink, faux-wood flooring, coffee tables, chairs, and plastic gray bar stools, in addition to the couches and TV. Each bedroom has a bed, desk, chair and dresser.

A model bedroom at Monarch 716. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Monthly rents are $899 per person for the four-bedroom units and $965 per month for the two-bedroom apartments, which range from 1,097 to 1,511 square feet in total. Rates include all utilities, with a $30 cap for electricity, as well as access to the complex's features, including activity programming and  breakfast bar in the clubhouse with cereal, snacks and a Starbucks coffee machine. "They're really buying into a lifestyle," King said.

The clubhouse houses the leasing office and a model unit, along with a couple of "hangout" areas with couches and fireplaces. There's also a ping-pong table; a computer lab with two Macs and two PCs; a fitness center with free weights, exercise balls, and both cardio and weight equipment; and a standing ProSun tanning bed.

A study area in the clubhouse at Monarch 716. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Then there's the bowling alley, complete with balls and shoes, next to a glass overhead door that can be opened up to the outside for parties. Just outside the clubhouse is the resort-style pool and a patio area with a grill, a fireplace hearth and cushioned wicker patio furniture. There's also a basketball court and a dog park.

Residents have RFID-equipped key fobs to access their building and apartment, with a mechanical key and deadbolt lock for their bedroom. Management lives on site.


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