Hotel to home in 14 weeks

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Published in The Panther | August 2013

The first day Sukanya Majumdar hosted guests in her new home, she poured apologies instead of drinks.

“I’m sorry I can’t offer you something,” she repeated.  The native of India nodded toward her skeletal kitchen. It was polished with new appliances, but still without dishes, food or beverages.

There wasn’t time to buy any.

The stove clock glowed 10:03 a.m. — 48 minutes after the business graduate student had moved into a new Panther Village apartment.

Majumdar recounted how when she arrived in the U.S. for the first time two weeks earlier, she toured the complex. It was furnished Chapman housing 2.5 miles from campus, and since no students knew about it before the summer, plenty of rooms were still available. So, she signed a lease.

The stove clock glowed 10:14 a.m. — 11 minutes closer to the fall semester. It would begin in two days.

Majumdar wasn’t alone in her rush. For nearly everyone involved in Panther Village, it had been a hurried summer.

Money matters

Jerry Price, vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students, said Chapman sought housing solutions for a year before purchasing a Quality Suites hotel building. The university paid $11.8 million for the 3101 W. Chapman Ave. property, and another $2.5 million to quickly renovate it into student apartments, Vice President Harold Hewitt wrote in an email.

But costs wouldn’t stop at renovations. The city of Orange also required a $450,000 room replacement fee, paid for by Chapman’s general operating funds, Hewitt wrote. Other costs will be paid for with short-term borrowings, rent revenue and a 30-year municipal revenue bond.

Price said although Chapman plans to eventually build a 400-bed housing complex, the university needed a solution sooner.

“We thought it’d be quicker to buy something,” Price said. “We started keeping our eyes open. From the time it got serious to the time it got finished happened pretty quick.”

Mike Shalizi, a revenue manager for parent company Choice Hotels International, wrote in an email that the 104-room hotel, built in 1988, was sold May 16 after its owners separated as business partners.

The late sale meant little time for advertising, but Price said the university didn’t want the complex to sit empty.

In an effort to attract students, Chapman offered two months free as a grand opening special. With that discount, a two-student studio rate was $6,980.55, a three-student loft rate was $8,030.55 and a single studio rate was $13,261.11 for nine months, including utilities, cable and Internet.

But in early August, when about 80 students — out of 230 spaces available — had signed up, Chapman revealed a less publicized, second special.

Upgraded at a cost

Junior health sciences major Jayla Asare received an email from Chapman in early August. It offered her and her roommate an upgrade from a studio suite to a loft — at studio price.

“We were like ‘Oh my gosh, we’ll take it’,” she said. “We got lucky.”

Resident Director Ryan Wilson said students who had signed up before July 24 were given the chance to upgrade.

“We did it to create excitement and get people over here,” he said.

Nearby, junior strategic and corporate communication major Derrick Ly, who signed up in August, moved into a smaller studio suite.

“That’s one thing that pissed me off,” Ly said. “If I had known that I’d get upgraded if I wanted this right away, then hell yea, I’d get upgraded.”

But there was a catch: upgraded students wouldn’t receive two months of free rent.

Despite getting more space, the upgrade meant fewer savings for them.

Students who upgraded to a loft saved $1,350 by paying regular studio price for it. Students who remained in a double studio saved $1,795 by receiving two months of free rent — $445 more in savings per student.

But Price said more than 20 students still upgraded to the lofts.

“By offering the upgrades to those students, we were able to make them happy without an out-of-pocket cost to us,” he said. “In giving students two months free, there was a real financial cost.”

Every loft at Panther Village is now occupied.

The transformation

Despite saving money by upgrading students to lofts, Chapman couldn’t save time. Immediately after the sale, renovations began in a rush. Money poured into a new pool, fences and light fixtures. New exercise equipment and a bigger laundry room appeared. Shuttles to transport students to campus arrived. Nameplate chalkboards were tacked by each door.

Meanwhile, Chapman assigned off-campus housing coordinator Amanda Zamora to recruit students and guide tours Fridays during a two-hour period. It was the only time, she said, construction could pause.

“It’s hard to envision what it’s going to look like without the furniture,” Zamora said during a tour. “Once we get the furniture in here, it’s going to make more sense.”

That furniture included new desks and beds. The hotel’s televisions, mirrors, stools, beige couches and matching drapes remained.

Despite the grand opening specials, Price had modest expectations two weeks before move-in day.

“Oh, gosh, they won’t be filled,” he said. “There’s no way we could get 230 additional beds in June and expect to fill them by August.”

He was right. By move-in day, 100 students had signed up. The apartments were at less than half capacity.

But they were finished.

Residing Panthers

The stove clock glowed 7:48 p.m. — four hours before Majumdar’s Wednesday homework was due. Ten days into the school year, she served ice water in newly stocked cups. Her room now hosted a navy blue bed quilt, a small Ganesha statue and a kidney bean curry dish she prepared for her neighbors.

“I can say it’s my apartment, ” she said. “I can chill in the bathtub. And I’m planning to hit the pool with my friends and classmates.”

The shuttle is often late, she said. But she’ll try to get a car next month. For her, it’s worth the Panther Village environment.

“It’s very peaceful and calm,” she said. “But also, I enjoy listening to my Bollywood songs, and I don’t feel the obligation to not increase the volume because my neighbors might have a problem. That never happens.”

Ly said he stayed at the complex when it was still a hotel his freshman year.

“I forgot how small it was, so my parents had to take some luggage home,” he said. “But I’m liking it so far, and I’ll use the gym. I used to live in a house off campus and, as much as I wanted a treadmill, you can’t get a treadmill in your house.”

Zamora said Panther Village will continue to accept applications as long as there is room for students to find their home there. For some, the renovated pool or the Chapman community might determine that home. For others, it is perhaps just another housing option.

And in the midst of a complex hurried with construction and financial affairs, Majumdar had picked out an apartment where she could be hospitable. It was a place where she could serve her guests drinks just as she would in India — even when time is rushed.

For her, that’s a home.