Saturday, November 22, 2014
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The guys behind West Philly's new high rise

Ted Rollins and Jerry Sweeney talk about their 33-story student project on the Penn-Drexel border

The guys behind West Philly's new high rise

Circa Centre South
Circa Centre South

The $158 million, 33-story Grove high-rise, planned for 850 Penn and Drexel students, adjoining the two campuses on a Penn-owned property at 2930 Chestnut St. in Brandywine Realty Trust's Cira South development, will stand out among East Coast college housing projects.

For one thing, it's taller. Boston University boasts a landmark 26-story dorm with spectacular views. New York University cancelled plans for a 38-story tower after Greenwich Village neighbors and architect I.M. Pei protested. Penn's three 25-story undergrad dorms have anchored "Superblock" ("an architectual conceptual disaster," according to this 1999 Pa. Gazette review) on the west end of campus since the 1970s. Temple's new Morgan Hall dominates the view to Center City from 21 stories above North Philly.

Also, like other Penn student housing projects in recent years, Grove is a private effort, though on a bigger scale: It will boast its own health club and pool, Internet and cable, and rents starting above $1,300/month for a single (there'll also be suites with up to three bedrooms.)

The project's backers hope it will reverse the long flow of graduate students into West Philly's mixed residential neighborhoods and booming Center City and slowing growth to the student ghetto locally dominated by outfits like Michael Karp's University City Housing Corp. and David Adelman's more upscale Campus Apartments (home of the Beige Blocks).

Grove rents will start above $1,300/month for a single. (In yet another sign that apartments >> offices in today's Philly real estate world, the University City Science Center is also planning a 27-story housing project a few blocks away.)

What are they thinking? I asked two of the partners behind the Grove at Cira deal.

Ted Rollins is head of Campus Crest Communities, the Charlotte-based firm that will run the building.

Up til now, Crest has built and run dorms in mostly Southern and Western states, mostly in small towns or suburbs.

Yet Rollins says the UCity tower is like coming home: He grew up in Delaware, the son of the late business mogul John Rollins, who defied the powerful du Ponts to build the tallest office tower in suburban Wilmington (looming over their country estates and golf clubs; it's now home to AstraZeneca's US operations), built a publicly-traded trucking empire and the Dover Downs NASCAR speedway, developed a chunk of Jamaica for tourism, and saved what's now the state's  largest bank, WSFS, from the S&L debacle, among his other investments.

"As a kid, my grandmother would take me to Philly, I'd look up and see the high rises and think, wouldn't it be great to build one some day!" Rollins told me, laughing. Now he gets his chance. (One of his sisters, Annie Prickett, is a Penn veterinary-school alumna.)

What does Crest do special? "We do things a little differently. We focus on resdential life," and student amenities," which Rollins promises will be "very competitive" with private rentals in town.

What does Crest know about high rises? "That's why we're partners with Brandywine," Philadelphia's dominant high-rise landlord, Rollins told me. The two were brought together by Scott Schaevitz, managing director at Barclays Bank, which has funded projects by both companies. "All the stars aligned."

"They have a fully comprehensive approach for student living that will be very attractive to grad students in University City," Brandywine boss Jerry Sweeney told me.

Brandywine, a publicly-traded Real Estate Investment Trust company, used to own office campuses in suburban clusters from here to California; lately it's concentrated mostly in Center City, buying high-rise towers from disappointed investors and planning apartments in what used to be office zones; in suburban Philadelphia, where it's joined other REITs that are selling aging buildings as rents fall; and in the Washington, D.C. area, where defense contractors who used to be reliable tenants have been cutting back.

Brandywine, as Sweeney noted, knows about both high rises and "doing business in Philadelphia" -- its building contractor, Keating, uses union labor, and has already lined up building permits.

Sweeney says his market research shows a lot of Penn and Drexel students do want to live a short stroll from the two engineering schools -- which each adjoin the Cira site -- as well as their business, medical, and other complexes a few blocks further away.

After all those years of students displacing resident families in West Philly and, lately, packing into Center City's fringes, "we anticipated growth would shift in this direction," Sweeney added.

UCity-based Drexel, Penn and Children's Hospital have all expanded across the Schuylkill into Center City in recent years, surrounding Brandywine's Cira project (which also includes the Cira One tower north of 30th Street Station, the rebuilt Post Office that now houses the IRS, and a neighboring parking garage).

Brandywine still wants to build a taller tower, for offices, at 2930 Walnut St. just to the South. Penn has agreed to be a major tenant, but the project depends on landing private occupants as well, Sweeney said. And that still hasn't happened.

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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