WINOOSKI - College students have finally arrived to occupy Spinner Place, the mammoth new $23.6 million, five-story brick building that surrounds the parking garage in downtown Winooski. The student housing complex is a cornerstone of the city's downtown redevelopment, and after years of construction, local businesses have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of its residents.
But occupancy hasn't proceeded exactly as planned.
For one thing, it's happening later than expected. Developers at Hall Keen and the Braverman Company initially set the opening for last January. That got postponed until June. Over the summer, about 60 University of Vermont students trickled in to fill a fraction of the building's 312 bedrooms.
It wasn't until Friday, August 25, that the first sizable group of students - 122 bodies - arrived. Despite that influx, nearly 10 months after the ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate the downtown, Spinner Place is just a little more than half full.
That could explain why nobody's rented out the ground-floor retail space. Dale Arango, Champlain Mill manager and Winooski Falls neighborhood spokesperson, calls its lack of occupants "a chicken and egg situation." "The retailers really need bodies to support their businesses," she says.
Another snag: though the development was created and marketed as housing solely for UVM students, all of the tenants who moved in on August 25 actually attend Champlain College. The smaller Burlington school has rented two entire floors of the building, and plans to use it as a dorm, staffed by residential assistants. On move-in day, Champlain College staff had affixed colorful nametags to their students' doors.
Were the developers surprised by the lack of interest from UVM students? "Absolutely," says Ken Braverman, project manager for Hall Keen and CEO of the Braverman Company.
Braverman says that prior to construction in 2004, market studies had identified a need for more UVM off-campus housing, and the school endorsed the idea of building it in Winooski. "UVM was a stakeholder in the project," Braverman notes.
In fact, 30 years from now, UVM will own the building. Spinner Place is currently the property of the Alabama-based nonprofit Collegiate Housing Foundation, which works with universities and developers to build student housing nationwide. The arrangement allows UVM and the City of Winooski to split the net revenues from the project for the next 30 years, at which time ownership of Spinner Place will go to the university.
But Thomas Gustafson, UVM Vice President for Student and Campus Life, says the school "doesn't really have any financial relationship with Spinner Place." Gustafson points out that UVM has promoted the off-campus apartments to its juniors, seniors and transfer students, but it can't require them to live there.
Gustafson says UVM was "very clear" from the start that the project needed to be a "competitive, market-based option."
Students can rent the two-, three- and four-person suites at Spinner Place for between $620 and $760 per bedroom per month. That price includes heat, water, basic cable and wireless Internet access. It also includes furniture; each bedroom comes with a brand- new, dorm-style bed, dresser and desk.
With its long, fluorescent-lit hallways and institutional furniture, Spinner Place doesn't exactly qualify as quirky collegiate digs. But it's clean, new, and in the center of downtown Winooski, within walking distance of several bars and eateries, and the newly completed, scenic Riverwalk. There's even a new express bus that started running last Monday, serving Fletcher Allen Hospital, Champlain College and General Dynamics.
So what's the hold-up? Part of the problem might be that, although UVM has posted record enrollment numbers this year, the school also just finished construction on its own 800-bed University Heights complex. It's the kind of facility that would appeal to students who might otherwise seek a fully furnished off-campus living space, and it's closer to their classes.
"This is a unique moment, when supply is slightly outstripping demand," Gustafson says. "The timing almost couldn't be more challenging for Spinner Place. We have no wait list for students who want housing on campus this year. The beds have been added faster than the students."
He adds, "It's a bit of a risk for students to try something new."
But Gustafson predicts that Spinner Place will eventually fill up with kids from UVM. He compares the complex to the Redstone Apartments, which are privately owned, but house UVM students. Redstone was "undersubscribed" for years, he notes, adding, "It was slow when it started out, and they're doing great now."
Braverman is also cautiously optimistic. He remains confident that Spinner Place occupies "a healthy market niche," and will eventually succeed. He's just not sure how long the city will have to wait to see the building full.
"It's going to take some time for the pieces to come together," Braverman says. "It's going to take some time for the building to reach what we call stabilized occupancy."