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Please Don't Puke on the Eames

A local firm brings luxury loft living to the college crowd.

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In April the management company for Loft-Right, a massive glass-and-steel residence at 1237 W. Fullerton, threw a party. Outside, prospective tenants stood behind a velvet rope, taking care of business on their cell phones as they waited to be admitted to the cavernous, curving lobby, where a DJ was spinning hip-hop. A flat-screen TV showed videos and flashed logos for ESPN, Bliss, and Kiehl's. Someone handed out goodie bags filled with CDs and cosmetics while partygoers signed up to win prizes like an iPod or a trip for two to Vegas.

Upstairs, in a model two-bedroom suite with ten-and-a-half-foot-high ceilings and exposed pipes and ductwork, guides pointed out some of the amenities: granite countertops, stainless-steel kitchen appliances, satellite TV, high-speed Internet access. The beds, desks, bar stools, wardrobes, sofas, and chairs all come from Herman Miller, the high-end, eco-conscious modern furniture designer. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a stunning skyline view. One person asked if the satellite TV, included in the rent, got premium channels (yes) and if the polished concrete floors were heated (no).

This crowd of demanding visitors wasn't what you might think--young professionals scoping out a new condo development. Loft-Right was built for DePaul University students, and unquestionably it's a vast improvement over the 12-by-12 cinder-block cells that college students have endured for generations. But is it really a good idea to leave an Eames leather sofa in the care of the demographic most likely to throw a kegger?

"Do they know this is a famous, iconic design? No, but they realize it's nice," says Robert Bronstein, president of the Scion Group, which helped conceive and publicize the project and manages the building. Though he acknowledges that there may be a few battered fixtures come next spring, he's optimistic. "People tend to treat spaces in correlation to how nice they are," he says. "We have faith in the students."

But Bronstein isn't going by faith alone: every element of Loft-Right has been intensively researched and/or focus-grouped. Benches are set inside recesses past every few rooms, which are intended both to break up lengthy corridors (the building is a block long) and facilitate mingling. The hallways are done up in bright colors and patterns that change every hundred feet or so. "This building is like a canvas," Bronstein says. "We can toss out the color scheme every five years."

Bronstein, 32, started working at the corporate real-estate firm Equis right out of college. But after four years, he says, "I started itching to do something on my own." Equis worked on the School of the Art Institute's dormitory on State and Randolph, a project that helped Bronstein realize there was a profitable niche in student housing at urban schools, which needed more rooms and had students who wanted nicer facilities.

Inspired, he cofounded the Scion Group in 1999 with his brother Eric. The following year Scion was hired to perform a market study and work on business planning for University Center, a "living/learning community" at 525 S. State for students from DePaul, Roosevelt University, and Columbia College. The 18-story building, which opened in 2004, includes a terrace, a gym, an art studio, game rooms, and even guest suites for the 'rents. Its success attracted more clients to Scion. "It was this multischool model that had never been done before," says Bronstein. "That gave us a national platform to sell consulting." Since then Scion's worked on other projects in Chicago (including IIT's State Street Village, designed by Helmut Jahn) and across the U.S. and Mexico.

In the process, Scion expanded from consulting to building management. "We'll always keep doing consulting," Bronstein says. "People are basically paying you to learn, which is great. But as a way to grow a business, building a portfolio of properties we manage is a lot more interesting." Management also provides a source of steady income while Scion pursues other projects. "Working on complicated deals, it takes a long time to pay out," he says. "The only way you can afford to do that is if you have other sources of revenue."

Scion is in a growth market: according to the U.S. Department of Education, undergraduate enrollment is expected to increase 16 percent from 2002 to 2014. And dorm life is considered just as important--if not more important--than great teachers or a winning football team. According to Scion's own research, Bronstein says, "there are seven factors to choosing a college, and none of them had to do with academics. They were looking at things like gyms, dorms, if they liked the person who led the tours." To his mind this isn't news. "At 17 I wasn't thinking, 'This school has the best molecular biology department' or whatever. It's one thing if you're going to Yale, another if your choices are the U. of I. or DePaul."

Bronstein also argues that schools like DePaul have to live up to students' expectations of urban living. "They watch The Real World and Friends--they have this idealized version of living in the city," he says. To that end, Loft-Right is something between a dorm room and an apartment: all utilities except electricity are covered, there's free parking and a 24-hour door staff, and residents aren't responsible for their roommates' share of the rent. The building is owned by a university-affiliated nonprofit, which financed construction by selling $73.4 million in tax-exempt bonds, and it pays Scion a fee to run the place. Supervision is limited to a group of "community advisers," basically RAs who, as Bronstein puts it, are "a bit more customer-service oriented." Loft-Right isn't official DePaul housing, but tenants sign an agreement to follow the building's policies and procedures, which are similar to the university's code of conduct.

The concept makes sense for DePaul, which is chronically short of student housing--especially for upperclassmen, who are weighted against in the school's housing-lottery system. "Our research told us we needed more residential opportunities in Lincoln Park, and this has provided that," says DePaul spokesperson Denise Mattson. University financial aid may even be used to cover Loft-Right rents.

Which aren't cheap: rooms range from $1,025 to $1,400 a month per student, though tenants with a contract for the 2006-'07 school year were able to move in and live there free this summer. Dorm rooms on DePaul's Lincoln Park campus range from around $600 to $950 per month. But as Bronstein points out, students who want an apartmentlike experience won't find anything comparable to Loft-Right for the price in Lincoln Park.

Parents apparently aren't balking at the extra cost. Bronstein says that most of Loft-Right's rooms have been rented, and he expects all of them to be filled when classes start in the fall. "People are spending $100,000 on their kid's education," he says. "Will they spend another $10,000? They will. They say, 'If I'm going to spend this much money, I'm going to do it right. I'm not going to mind spending more to make sure my kid lives in the nicest, safest, newest building.'" In fact, he says, the most expensive units tend to rent first.

Adam Briones, who'll be a senior next year, signed a lease before the building was finished. "I liked the dimensions," he says. "It's a little more freedom--it's not technically under university management." But when he saw the suite for the first time at the party, he was a little put off by the loft style, especially the fact that in some of the bedrooms the wall doesn't reach the ceiling. (Bronstein says that about 25 percent of the bedrooms do have walls that reach the ceiling.) But he'd applied early, which scored him a room with a private door and a bathroom; that plus the rent-free summer and the parking space eased his concerns.

For other students the decision was a no-brainer. As a freshman, Charlie McGrath was so eager to escape the dorms he moved off campus, where he says he was one of three people using a bedroom that comfortably fit two. So he was immediately interested when he saw an ad for Loft-Right last winter. "It really looked like the nicest housing option in Lincoln Park we could find, and it's fairly cheap for what we got." He and a friend signed a contract after touring the building. They moved in two weeks ago.

"It's awesome," he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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