In his stint as president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson insisted that students live in spartan dormitories to guard against what he saw as elitism and other intrusions into the life of the mind. According to a recent LA Times article, one architect wrote that Wilson envisioned the campus as "a walled city against materialism and all of its works."
That was Princeton in the early 1900s. This is Charleston in 2015.
You won't find any monkish quarters at 930 NoMo, a 430-bed student apartment building currently being built just north of the Ravenel Bridge at 930 Morrison Drive. With rent starting at $899 a month for a single bedroom in a four-bedroom apartment, the amenities would make Wilson blush: riverside balconies, a rooftop lounge, a fitness center, a cycle center, a tanning salon, a bocce court, a soundproof music studio/band room, and a 9,000-square-foot WiFi-equipped pool terrace with a DJ booth.
The construction site is just a few blocks south of the City Paper office, so naturally we've been eyeing it with curiosity. Here's our interview with Steve Helfrich, vice president of business development at CampusWorks, one of the development companies behind 930 NoMo:
City Paper: You've probably heard that there's been some debate about what to call this neighborhood: NoMo, Cool Blow, the Creative Corridor, the Upper Peninsula. How did you arrive at the NoMo name?
Steve Helfrich: You know what, it stuck early on. I think I read it in an early article back in 2012, and in that same article I think it said Creative Corridor, and it just stuck.
CP: One thing everybody is talking about with this building is that it's got some pretty swanky amenities. It's certainly a step up from the places I stayed in college.
SH: Oh, me too, man.
CP: The fitness and cycle center, the rooftop lounge, the music studio, the bocce court, the tanning salon — is that becoming the norm in your industry?
SH: It really is ... Every individual unit, the student has their own bathroom. That's a major amenity that hasn't existed, or it has existed and it seems as though with the amenities, every developer within the student housing industry is trying to outdo one another. So to answer your question, it is becoming the norm.
CP: One bathroom for each bedroom? I would have killed for that.
SH: Exactly. We cater to, really, the female student. We design our programming, our elements, the security, the design of our bathrooms and even our units to females. So, large walk-in closets, large bathrooms.
CP: The other thing people are talking about is the rental price. It's not unheard of in Charleston, but for the neighborhood it does seem a little steep. Are you confident that the rooms are going to fill up at that price point?
SH: Absolutely. If we compare it to the other purpose-built student housing — now obviously you do have to take out some location elements, but we do have a shuttle that's going to run specific hours to class and then take the kids down to King Street on Fridays and Saturdays — but the affordability when you factor in parking (we have free parking), cable, internet, and the amenities, looking at the rent in comparison with our competitors, we're hundreds of dollars cheaper for a higher-quality product. When we compare ourselves to Campus Center apartments, granted, their best amenity is their location. But they're also, on their [four-bedroom unit], they're $200 more expensive.
CP: Looking at your website, you're partly marketing to students, but you're also marketing to parents. How do you sell 930 NoMo to parents who are footing the bill for the rent?
SH: What makes this unique in purpose-built student housing is that they all require a parental guarantee. It's 100 percent required.
CP: So if the student doesn't pay, the parents are on the hook?
SH: Correct. Unless they can provide proof that they have a specific balance sheet or income, but we never get to that. Really a parental guarantee is required. Selling that, what we come down to is effective management and security to provide secure access to the entire building. So we have full-time property management, we have the emergency blue light stations throughout our parking center, we have closed-circuit TV monitoring on the property, those type of things. The parents look at that very favorably, that they always can go down to the front desk and talk to an individual person because it's managed full time.
CP: One thing college students have probably earned their reputation for is tearing up rental properties. When you're working on a student housing development, is there anything in the design to compensate for wear and tear or to make it student-proof?
SH: You know, surprisingly, in all our properties, because we build to a high-quality standard for design, although we do take things into consideration with our furniture and how we make that durable, the students tend to respect a place that's built well and designed well, and they tend to keep it cleaner. It's almost like if your room's dirty, you always leave it dirty, but if it's clean, they tend to keep it clean and respect it.
There's wear and tear, there's issues on every property, but for example, the countertops — we're doing granite countertops. Most of the kids in this particular market, they have them at home, so they're used to it, whereas at Georgia Southern we probably wouldn't put granite countertops in ... So we took the time early on to dive in where are the College of Charleston students coming from, and a majority of them are from the Northeast, and understand that kind of background demographic of them. We don't deadbolt the doors, we have fob access that is very clean. The VCT [vinyl composition tile] flooring we do is a great style floor, but it's a panel floor, so we can take it out in panels and replace it very easily. So that is one of the things we do. We have carpets in the bedroom because the kids do prefer carpets in the bedroom, and that has to be changed over, but surprisingly we don't have a lot of issues other than wear and tear. The students are very respectful of our places.
CP: One of the interesting dynamics in Charleston is that the college has always had a shortage of on-campus housing, and students have spilled over into neighborhoods, sometimes generating some town-and-gown friction. Is that one of the factors you consider when you're looking to work on a project?
SH: 100 percent, absolutely. When we initially met with the city, there were discussions with the city, and even as we did our diligence talking to officials, meeting with Mayor Riley, meeting and understanding the local social inertia, everyone was welcoming to kind of move the kids out of that corridor because they were mixing in with the conventional normal housing population. There was full support of this because we were actually moving kids farther away and then providing them with a good academic environment as well.
One thing I didn't touch on is we have study rooms on every floor, and it's not just crazy amenities. Our clubhouse is designed for studying. But to answer your question, we do that work understanding the local politics, and it's very instrumental and supportive, the feedback that we got, that it was the right decision to do a product a little farther away from campus.
CP: Where's the parking? Will it be underground or at a surface lot?
SH: Around 75 percent is surface park, so that's under the bridge, and that is free. Then we do have some charged parking under the [building].
CP: Do you have numbers on how many rooms or apartments have been filled so far?
SH: Our velocity is good. That's all I'd like to say right now, but we've had a phenomenal response from the students. It is a late market in terms of leasing. There's an education process that needs to happen at the College of Charleston that 400 Meeting started last year, and it is that purpose-built, lease-by-the-bed, parental-guarantor education that the students need to get familiar with and comfortable with. They're learning. It's a process.