Reviews mixed for new, off-campus student apartments near Penn State

For the CDTSeptember 30, 2013 

Four newly opened student housing complexes — The Retreat, The Heights, The Grove and The Villas at Happy Valley — have been on the minds of many students since classes started — for reasons good and bad.

The new housing developments promoted their amenities, from spas to fitness centers and pools, to entice students to sign leases. But two of the four failed to meet completion deadlines, forcing some new residents to spend days or weeks in hotels or with friends.

The Retreat, on Waupelani Drive, opened without problems for its 587 tenants.

With cottage-style housing plans, tenants have the option of two-, three-, four- or five-bedroom units and 18 different floor plans. Monthly rents range from $695 to $915 per person.

By comparison, an older complex like The Park on Blue Course Drive has has two- and four-bedroom apartments that start from $509 to $669.

“I believe it is worth every penny,” said Retreat resident Claudia Bonilla, a junior from Puerto Rico. “Management takes really good care of us and makes sure that we have everything we need.”

With amenities such as a cybercafe, a sauna and spa suites, The Retreat has tried to differentiate itself in the market, said Jerrilynn Cipar, its leasing and marketing manager.

Bonilla noted that distance could become an issue since it is 1.5 miles from campus.

Living at The Retreat requires self-discipline because “it is easy to forget that you are in school when you have everything you need here,” she said.

Meanwhile, The Retreat’s neighbors, many of whom opposed its construction, remain wary of its effects.

“We should’ve had a different type of community going in there,” said Lou Walley, 81, a resident on Waupelani Drive.

Walley said original plans called for single-family homes on the property where The Retreat stands.

“The area here is already heavily congested with transient people in terms of apartment buildings and other student housing. What used to be a very nice, quiet neighborhood is now far from that,” she said.

Even before The Retreat opened, residents experienced traffic in the morning when people were on their way to work, Walley said. She said she is not sure if the new housing is to blame for most of the growth in traffic, but it has become a factor.

“The traffic has become almost to the point where it has been difficult for those of us who have small driveways to get on back out into the road,” she said. “The buses are coming by constantly during the daytime; that causes traffic to stop.”

Unlike The Retreat, residents at The Heights and The Grove had to deal with construction delays.

The Heights, on Blue Course Drive, was to open 213 apartments for 639 tenants during move-in weekend, Aug. 23-25, but a number of residents had to be accommodated elsewhere until their apartments were ready.

“It was horrible the first two weeks, because I was living out of my suitcase and I stayed with a friend here at The Heights as well,” said resident Omayra Soto, a senior from Puerto Rico.

The walls weren’t ready, painting wasn’t done, and nothing was installed, she said.

Despite her two weeks of frustration, Soto said she is satisfied with her new two-bedroom apartment. “I love my apartment; for two people, it’s very spacious and there’s tons of room to be comfortable,” she said.

The Grove, on Toftrees Avenue in Patton Township, has had similar issues.

It is still completing a few unfinished portions of the property, said Campus Crest Communities, which owns the property.

The 216-unit complex has 587 beds. Units have personal bathrooms, walk-in closets, washer and dryer, full-size kitchen and free parking.

Just as at The Heights, some residents had to be accommodated in hotels until their apartments were finished. Campus Crest Communities would not provide an exact number of residents affected.

Move-in date for The Grove was to be Aug. 24, but Caitlin Simpson said she was sent emails informing her of a new move-in date and time, neither of which stated that the apartment was fully ready.

“When we showed up, the entire place was filthy and covered in a layer of dust. The air was full of it, and it smelled like paint fumes, so we tried to open a window only to realize that there were no screens installed,” she said.

Simpson compares the complex to her new furniture — nice and of good quality but banged up and scratched from being transported carelessly.

“I feel like that could be a metaphor for the entire place in general. It has a lot of potential, but in the end a lot of it was rushed,” she said.

“Now that everything has been fixed (and cleaned) in my apartment, I love it,” Simpson added.

Things at The Villas at Happy Valley, on Dreibelbis Street, appear to have gone more smoothly. The complex has three-bedroom townhomes for $595 per person. The two-story townhomes are in different sections according to a resident’s preferences.

Graduates, professionals, families and more studious students have the option of living in a “quieter” section, for example.

Meanwhile, changes in other apartment complex have followed the openings of the new units.

One such complex, The Park at State College, formerly known as State College Park, raised its rates for the 2013-14 school year. Rent for a top-floor, four-bedroom apartment increased from $496 per month to $519.

In the spring, The Park was turned over to new management, The Scion Group, and a $2.5 million budget for renovations was announced. Renovations include hardwood floors, new furniture, updated gym equipment and a computer lab for the 2013-14 school year. Displays in the clubhouse advertise the updates.

According to General Manager Sheri Lucas, “New development had no discernible impact on us this year” and The Park is fully occupied.

Amy Ross is a Penn State journalism student.

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