Off-campus student housing locations competing for downtown business

It’s a war like no other: Sheer convenience versus superb amenities — rolling out of bed and walking to class versus returning from class and diving into a pool. The battle between on-campus and off-campus housing has never been quite like this.

It’s no secret that most Penn State students prefer to live as close to campus as possible, but some new luxury housing — notably The Heights, The Retreat and The Villas — is attempting to change that.

“There’s nothing that you would yearn to do that you couldn’t do here,” said Cathy Bryan, a national leasing specialist for The Retreat. “You have that feeling of, ‘I’m at home and my parents aren’t here. They sent me off to Club Med, and I just pay a monthly rent to live here.’ ”

The three new apartment communities will open for the 2013-14 academic year. All are at least a mile from campus: The Retreat on Waupelani Drive, The Heights on Blue Course Drive, and The Villas at Happy Valley on Dreibelbis Street near Shiloh Road.

Though each offers both parking and bus passes, their distance from campus poses a dilemma for many students: location or luxury?

For some, it’s all about avoiding the dreaded bus.

“I want to stay in the downtown area so I don’t have to take a bus to school,” said Bobby Stauffer, a 21-year-old chemical engineering major from Erie. “I won’t pay that much if it’s that far away.”

Al Pringle, senior vice president of commercial real estate for the Keystone Real Estate Group, which manages The Villas, said that commutes from places like The Villas can sometimes be shorter than from properties closer to campus.

“If you lived in, say, the Palmerton or Nicholas Tower — two of our properties — and you have class on the east end of campus, most of those students are hopping on a bus anyway,” Pringle said. “Or the walk could be up to half an hour, 20 minutes to get across campus.”

Pringle said off-campus housing has to compete with downtown housing on a few levels — price, location and, particularly, amenities.

“Can you shop, can you go to the movies, can you seek entertainment — all the things that the downtown properties really have inherent in the commercial infrastructure along College and Beaver avenues?” Pringle asked. “The answer, hopefully, is yes for all of us.”

Danielle Cassels, a 20-year-old from St. Marys majoring in communication sciences and disorders, recently signed a lease at The Retreat, in large part because of the amenities.

“I wanted to live downtown because it’s closer,” she said. “But all the perks we got, plus being the first people to live there. ... That was a big thing for us. The pool and hot tub were definitely things that drew us in.”

Danielle Lyle, property manager for The Heights, said these amenities, along with the space and privacy the properties offer, are big selling points.

“It’s basically just a gathering and hangout place for free because you’re living there,” she said.

The expected population of the new communities varies but isn’t small: The Retreat has a total of 587 beds, The Villas 435 beds and The Heights 619 beds.

But some students say that off-campus housing at a distance can often pose a problem — because, again, a lot of people hate to ride the bus.

“When you’re that far away, socially no one wants to go out to you,” said Rachel Moloughney, a 22-year-old print journalism major from Tannersville. “It kind of isolates you from other activities.”

Moloughney now lives in a house close to campus, but last year she lived at State College Park on Blue Course Drive, not far from the now-rising Heights complex. She said that though she prefers her present location, she liked her apartment last year.

“It’s a fairly nice community up there. You get the pool, you get your own fitness center, you get a bus pass, you get your own room. ...” Moloughney said, adding, “They offer more.”

That idea — “they offer more” — is what the new housing communities are banking on.

“Having a pool, having a clubhouse, social gathering areas, fire pits and hot tubs — kids love them,” Pringle said.

“It’s a real changing direction in student housing,” he said. “It’s driven towards amenities on the property simply because there isn’t enough development opportunity right next to campus to allow the use of all of the traditional downtown infrastructure and campus infrastructure.”