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December 19, 2014

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Regents approve plans to go forward with apartment-style campus housing at UNLV

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Courtesy UNLV

A concept image provided by UNLV shows the proposed Midtown Park, a $175 million apartment-style dormitory project at UNLV that is scheduled to open in fall 2015.

Nevada's higher education leaders unanimously approved a tentative agreement for Midtown Park, a $175 million apartment-style dormitory project at UNLV that is scheduled to open in fall 2015.

The university, which is trying to transition from a commuter campus to a residential college, has long been trying to build apartment-style dorms that would encourage more residents to stay on campus and build a stronger student community.

Apartment-style dorms are favored by upperclassmen, graduate students and nontraditional students, who tend to be older and seek the flexibility of apartment living. Currently, the majority of UNLV student residents move off-campus after their freshman and sophomore years.

Midtown Park would be built at the corner of Maryland Parkway and Cottage Grove Avenue, according to preliminary renderings. The apartment-style dorm would complement UNLV's four traditional dorms – Dayton, Tonapah, South and Upper Class complexes – which house 1,450 beds.

UNLV's current dorms, which were built between 1966 and 2004, have a "tired" design, characterized by long hallways, common areas and shared bathrooms, said UNLV President Neal Smatresk.

"Students expect more," Smatresk said, adding that Midtown Park also could house faculty, staff and married students. "These will be living facilities where people can cook and recreate and have things you'd expect in a good apartment."

Preliminary designs for Midtown Park – which will be built in a public-private partnership – show a five-story mixed-use complex with about 550 one- to three-bedroom apartments as well as commercial space. The first stage of the project is expected to be completed by fall 2015, and will boast nearly 2,000 beds – more than double UNLV's current housing stock.

Midtown Park is in its initial design stages, but developers say it will be modeled after the Vista del Sol apartment-style dorms at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.

Vista del Sol has become wildly popular among ASU students since it was opened in 2008. The dorm features many amenities found in higher-end Las Vegas apartment complexes, among them: a gym, computer center, game room and resort-style pools with sun decks and lounge cabanas, on-site retail and dining options, round-the-clock security.

Nationally, universities have begun developing apartment-style dorms with more lavish amenities to attract a more affluent student body that can afford higher education's rising price tag.

Gerry Bomotti, UNLV's senior vice president for finance, said Midtown Park wouldn't be "that high-end." He said the university remained committed to its mission as an open-access university, which accepts many low-income, minority and nontraditional students.

"Our students in general are very price-conscious and they vote with their feet," Bomotti said. "This will be high quality, but it's got to be market priced."

Rent prices – which will be set by the project's private developers – are still being calculated, with a housing demand study forthcoming over the next couple of months, Bomotti said. Monthly rent at the Vista del Sol ranges from $459 per person for a shared three-bedroom apartment to $1,189 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Regardless of price, students are beginning to flock back to on-campus housing as UNLV begins to rebound from the recession, Smatresk said. Midtown Park would help meet that resurging demand, he said.

"We're now back in a growth period. The demand for residential housing is rising," Smatresk said, addressing Nevada regents on Friday. "We believe the time is now. It's absolutely critical to look at this type of proposal."

Approval of the memorandum of understanding came during a special meeting Friday and will allow UNLV to partner with private developers to build Midtown Park. The Midtown Park proposal was brought to UNLV by AVS, which markets and manages the university's existing dorms.

AVS is a private firm founded by Las Vegas real estate developers American Nevada Company and the Vista Group, and Chicago-based Scion Group. (American Nevada is a sister company of the Greenspun Media Group, which owns the Las Vegas Sun.)

AVS has partnered with Educational Facilities Development and Core Construction to help develop Midtown Park.

The Arizona-based EFDS is a relatively new developer, which constructed Vista del Sol at ASU and is working on completing more than $70 million in public school projects. Core Construction is the nation's fifth-largest contractor of educational facilities and has built several campuses for the Clark County School District.

According to the memorandum of understanding, EFDS would purchase a 14-acre property on the corner of Maryland Parkway and Cottage Grove Avenue for between $34 million and $38 million. That land is owned by American Nevada and the Vista Group, which manage University Park Apartments currently on the property.

There are about 700 residents at the 40-year-old University Park, of which 15 percent are UNLV students. AVS, which has notified residents of its redevelopment plans, will work with residents to find alternative housing, officials said.

UNLV then would purchase the University Park complex grounds from EFDS for $17 million, pending the result of an appraisal next week.

The university – which has seen multimillion budget cuts since the recession – is taking $8 million from its general improvement fund that has been left untouched since 2000, as well as money from other savings in the budget to cover the land purchase.

"We can come up with the $17 million, but it will drain a number of sourses we have," Bomotti said.

The then-university-owned land would be developed by EFDS and Core Construction. The financial risk of Midtown Park's construction would be borne by the private developers – not the university.

Midtown Park would be constructed in two phases.

The first phase will deliver up to 2,000 beds by fall 2015 on the west side of the property, toward Maryland Parkway. The second phase could add more than 1,000 beds, depending on additional student demand.

Once construction is completed, the new dorms would be leased to AVS for 35 years to maintain and operate them. Afterward, any improvements made on the university-owned land – which could be worth much more than UNLV's initial investment – would revert back to UNLV.

During that 35-year period, UNLV would be responsible for marketing and leasing the apartments, as well as collecting rent. UNLV would retain 3.5 percent of rent to cover its costs.

If UNLV decides at any point to nix the partnership with AVS, it faces the possibility of having to reimburse $250,000 in expenses incurred by the private developers.

Although regents seemed largely in favor of the project, Regents Cedric Crear and Allison Stephens raised concerns about Midtown Park's development. Regent Ron Knecht also asked several questions about the project.

Crear was worried about how the Arizona developers of the $175 million project would ensure local businesses in state – especially minority- and women-owned companies – would be chosen as subcontractors of the project.

Crear also was concerned about how regents can hold the private developers accountable for the project's timely completion. He said he didn't want another Fontainebleau, a shuttered project standing half-finished on the Las Vegas Strip.

"If all goes to hell, the board is ultimately held responsible for this," Crear said.

Stephens questioned how UNLV was able to find $17 million amid massive budget cuts.

"Students have borne the brunt of significant shortfalls in the budget," Stephens said. "Somehow we always come up with money in the 11th hour for these projects."

Michael Saltman, who envisioned Midtown Park six years ago, was relieved with the regents’ ultimate approval.

Saltman is the president of the Vista Group and a longtime UNLV supporter. The UNLV Foundation member helped found the eponymous Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the university and has been long trying to redevelop the neighborhood surrounding UNLV.

In the 1970s, Saltman purchased and developed several properties on the Maryland Parkway corridor, including an apartment complex and shopping center. Saltman said Midtown Park – along with a proposed Regional Transportation Center light rail – would help revitalize the area, which had come under hard times in recent years.

"This is a milestone for me," Saltman said, referring to the regent's vote. "I want to see this (revitalization) happen in my lifetime."

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