Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Manhattan may be a bit large to be considered a college town. But the rapid expansion of dozens of postsecondary schools across the borough in recent years has added a hard-to-ignore collegiate flavor.

As enrollments have surged, so too have the number of dormitories, which are increasingly being built not by the universities themselves, but by third-party developers, who take on site acquisition, construction and leasing.

Clustered mostly downtown, and occasionally many blocks from main campuses, these dorms have been the targets of critics who contend they add an unruly element to neighborhoods. Others argue that developers are merely interested in dorms as a bait-and-switch ploy to get around zoning rules, as they are usually permitted to be larger than apartment buildings.

But eager to capitalize on strong demand, developers say they are willing to put up with a little pushback.

“There’s not enough space in Manhattan, and Manhattan is where students want to be,” said Brett Herschenfeld, a senior vice president with SL Green Realty Corp., a major commercial landlord known for its office towers that has begun developing dormitories.

A recent example is 180-182 Broadway, a 23-story dorm at John Street in the financial district that SL Green, along with Wharton Properties and the Harel Group, an Israeli insurance company, built for nearby Pace University.

About 230 rooms in the top 20 floors of the building provide housing for around 600 students and are leased to Pace for 30 years.

The developers are hanging on to a window-lined retail space at the base of the building, which faces the new Fulton Center transit hub. In 2014, two tenants, Urban Outfitters and TD Bank, will open locations in the space, which is a commercial condo, Herschenfeld said. The commercial condo arrangement is a way for a nonprofit organization like Pace to separate retail development from more traditional uses of its property.

For decades, Pace was primarily a commuter school and made do with dorms at One Pace Plaza, a 1969 building across from City Hall that has 500 beds, as well as classrooms and a library.

But today, Pace enrolls 5,500 undergraduates in Manhattan, up from 4,700 in 2008, officials say (the university also has a campus in suburban Pleasantville, N.Y.). And many come from out of state, with 72 percent of this year’s first-year students living in dorms, said William McGrath, Pace’s chief administrative officer.

Around the corner, SL Green, in a partnership with the Naftali Group and Harel, is also at work on 33 Beekman St., a new 34-story, 384-room dorm for 770 students that will have a small bookstore at street level and a fitness center upstairs. The high-rise, which Pace will also lease for 30 years, is to open in 2015.

Record-high land costs, coupled with a desire not to mire balance sheets in debt because of expensive construction projects, has made leasing attractive to many schools.

“It wasn’t feasible to build new dorms ourselves,” said McGrath, who initially talked with landlords about converting empty offices to dorms. Ultimately, though, he decided it was easier to create small, shareable rooms in a custom-built facility.

For dorm life, Pace students pay $15,800 for the nine-month academic year, or about $1,760 a month, which includes furniture and utilities. In contrast, a typical downtown studio, which does not come with beds or electricity, is about $2,700 a month, according to a Douglas Elliman rental report from November.

Based on the differential in rents, it might be tough to understand why developers would build dorms instead of conventional apartments. But, as brokers point out, dorms can pack in far more tenants.

“You’re putting four people into spaces that are usually for one or two,” said Robert Knakal, chairman of Massey Knakal Realty Services, a commercial brokerage. “So on a cost-per-square-foot basis, you’re getting pretty high rents.”

Developers might have other motives. Zoning rules often permit dorm buildings to be as much as twice the size of apartment buildings; they get a bonus because they are affiliated with education and thus ostensibly benefit the community.

Those extra-roomy buildings could eventually be converted to apartments, according to Knakal and other brokers, even though a change of use would officially require zoning approval.

Yet even the existence of dorms can be contentious. In the East Village, where New York University has a large presence, complaints about drunken, rowdy student behavior are frequent.

A plan by Singer Financial Corp. to convert a former public school at 605 E. Ninth St. into a 535-bed dormitory to be leased by several colleges, including Cooper Union, has also met stiff resistance.

Ben Shaoul, the president of Magnum Real Estate Group, a residential developer who also has recently branched out into student housing, says the “no dorms in my backyard” crowd doesn’t get it.

“How can people say that they want New York be the greatest city in the world, but they don’t want students living here?” Shaoul said. “Those students are the future of our city.”


His current project is for the steadily growing School of Visual Arts, whose undergraduate enrollment is 3,600. To be situated at 340 E. 24th St., the 14-story building would house around 500 students atop 11,000 square feet of retail space. Magnum is partnering with 40 North Management, an investment firm, on the project, which is expected to break ground this winter.

Like many developers, Shaoul says the term “dorm” does not do justice to the modern-day version, as it suggests banal cinder blocks, instead of something more stylish like a luxury hotel.

The $90 million School of Visual Arts project, designed by Ismael Leyva, will offer a seventh-floor terrace with lounge chairs and pedestals to display student sculptures, as well as an outdoor theater.

Similarly, Cornell NYC Tech, the graduate school planned for Roosevelt Island, has announced that its first dormitory will offer a roof deck, screening rooms and a fitness center.

The $100 million facility, which will house 540 people, will be developed by a partnership of the Hudson Cos., the Related Cos. and Cornell, though Related will collect rents from students, according to a Related spokeswoman.

Not all dorms are being outsourced. Though the Durst Organization handled construction of the New School’s University Center, a residential and classroom complex at 65 Fifth Ave., the building is owned and operated by the college.

Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the brass-paneled $352 million tower opened its 617-student residential portion, Kerrey Hall, this fall; the classrooms will follow this winter.

But the New School has taken advantage of a mixed-use model, too, even if it may be at odds with the classic image of the Georgian-style, ivy-draped college building: the dorm has an 8,000-square-foot corner retail space, which is currently available at $400 a square foot.

“Dorms are built differently in the ‘burbs,” said Jeffrey Roseman, an executive vice president at Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, which is marketing the space. “You’re also not going to put administrative offices on the ground floor. It’s just too valuable.”