University of Akron freshman Ruseliz Luna has a room with a view: a brand-new swimming pool, outdoor fireplace and vine-covered fence.
All in downtown Akron.
Luna, 18, is a new resident of 401 Lofts at Cedar and South Main streets, the latest student housing complex to open downtown.
She says the pool was not the biggest attraction.
“I wanted that college experience, and I didn’t want to live in a dorm,” said Luna, whose hometown is Akron. “This is near restaurants, the clubs — and the University of Akron. It’s all right here — everything a college student goes to.”
The 401 Lofts complex is adding more than 300 beds to the burgeoning, privately developed, student housing market downtown and around nearby UA. In all, housing for more than 2,000 UA students has been built — or is under construction — by private developers.
Concerned about a glut of student housing, city officials are studying the boom in private, off-campus developments to decide if there’s room for more.
A 120-day moratorium on new projects expired in early August — before the study could be completed.
The study now is expected to be finished by Sept. 9, in time to share the findings with Mayor Don Plusquellic and City Council members returning from summer break.
While Akron leaders are concerned there might be too much student housing, they bemoan a lack of choices for nonstudents who want to live downtown.
City development manager Adele Roth said she is eager to see downtown’s revitalization continue with market-rate apartments aimed at everyone from young professionals to empty nesters. She is buoyed by developer Jack Crews’ plans for apartments, as well as a restaurant, in the 12-story Landmark building on South Main Street, and additional apartments planned for Canal Square and a proposed expansion of the town home complex at Northside Lofts.
She wants to see Akron mimic other big cities in Ohio, including Cleveland and Columbus, which are seeing a boom in downtown housing.
Plusquellic, himself a downtown resident living in Canal Square, said the weak economy has been a drag on Akron developments.
“I think every city will see some of this [housing] come back,” Plusquellic said.
Ned Hill, a professor at Cleveland State University who has long studied downtowns, said there’s a good reason Akron has struggled to attract downtown housing: “It’s not easy.”
“As you look at Cleveland downtown, it’s an overnight sensation that was 30 years in the making,” said Hill, dean at CSU’s Levin College of Urban Affairs. “You need aggressive patience.”
UA students have gone from having few housing options — rental houses and dorm rooms — to a bevy in the past decade.
First on the downtown scene was the privately developed 22 Exchange — at Exchange and Main streets at the south end of downtown — that is beginning its fifth year.
Just this month, the neighboring $12 million, 401 Lofts opened. It boasts by-the-bedroom rentals the same as other new large complexes built by private developers.
Other newer complexes are EnVision Apartments on Grant Street, just south of campus, and Quaker, a former hotel that UA now owns and has devoted solely to student housing. There are also five residence halls that UA has built or purchased in the past five years.
Students will have more choices next year when two more complexes under construction will open: the 578-bed University Edge on Exchange Street, across from campus, and the 600-plus-bed Depot, along South Broadway downtown at East Exchange Street. The Depot is being built on land formerly owned by the Akron Beacon Journal.
When these complexes open, the city will have nearly 4,700 student beds available in private, off-campus housing, and just over 3,100 offered on campus, for a total of about 7,800 beds, according to Akron’s preliminary study.
The jump in student housing comes as UA enrollment has declined. The university’s enrollment dropped about 3 percent last fall to 28,771 students and is projected to dip another 5 to 7 percent this fall.
Helen Tomic, Akron’s comprehensive planning manager, said the study isn’t complete because it doesn’t include students living in older houses surrounding the university. UA officials say 10 percent of students live in university-owned housing on campus and the remainder live off campus.
John Messina, UA’s chief housing officer, said that even with all the new choices, the university’s dorms are expected to be filled this year.
Michael Weiss of Richland Communities, which developed 22 Exchange (it has since sold the property for a reported $28 million) and 401 Lofts, said 401 Lofts likely will have a 95 percent occupancy rate by mid-September. Weiss aims to differentiate 401 Lofts, saying it has a number of studio apartments and single-bedroom units aimed at young professionals, graduate students and upper-class students.
Weiss raised concerns this year when Akron City Council was weighing plans for the Depot, telling council members, “If this and other projects go through, we will be sitting at 30 percent full.”
The council approved the Depot plans, and then instituted the moratorium — now expired — and requested the student housing study.
Area apartment owner Ed Newman would like the moratorium to be reinstituted. He and his father, Herb Newman, spent more than $13 million transforming former low-income units off Grant Street, south of campus, into EnVision Apartments for students in 2010.
Newman said he is expecting more than 90 percent occupancy this year, after a low of roughly 80 percent about a year ago. His marketing techniques include billboards, advertising on pizza boxes and use of the Internet.
If enrollment at UA doesn’t go on the upswing, he said, “You’re going to see a lot of developers battling over a few thousand students looking for housing.”
Aaron Pechota, with the NRP Group of Garfield Heights, the developer of the $20 million Depot, disputes that notion. He said market studies show Akron could handle even more student housing, though he does not expect any more plans to be submitted.
He envisions “good, healthy competition in the next couple of years.”
Developers find student housing attractive to build even in a slow economy because of the “built-in demand” created by universities, said Frank Licata, president of LRC Realty of Akron, one of the partners behind the $40 million University Edge retail and student housing complex.
One of the biggest nonstudent housing developments planned for downtown has been years in the making.
The plan for a $24 million project to bring an apartment/retail project to the South Main Street block anchored by the historic Akron Civic Theatre has been percolating since 2006.
Jack Crews with Main Street Partners insists the plan is moving ahead, although he has not set a construction date. Crews, who lives in Kent and previously did economic development work for that city, said there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work happening.
The project involves renovating six vacant buildings north of the Civic, including the 1895 Whitelaw building, and one on the south side that formerly housed the Stage Left gift shop.
Nearly 90 apartments are planned for the historic Landmark building, a 12-story structure that is the northernmost building on the block and sits at the corner of Bowery and Main Streets. It housed Akron Savings & Loan and most recently U.S. Bank. About 30 apartments are planned for the adjacent buildings.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, email@example.com or @swarsmith. Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Beacon Journal’s political blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/ohio-politics.