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UB student housing goes upscale

The lobby of The Varsity, a $22 million student apartment building in mid-town set to officially welcome its first tenants on Wednesday, has edgy art, sleek modern furniture and an array of small lights stretching from floor to ceiling that defy the usual grunge of most college digs.

The Varsity’s first-floor study lounge is outfitted with Apple computers, PCs and a 42-inch flat-screen television set.

But then again, this is not your grandmother’s student housing.

The 11-story, 323-bed building will charge monthly rents between $750 and $1,000 per bed for its studio and multiple bedroom apartments.

The building has a concierge, and its units come furnished with leather sofas, gourmet kitchens with granite countertops and stainless appliances, large private bathrooms, hardwood floors, a washer and dryer and stunning vistas of Baltimore.

On the first floor near the stylish lobby is a study lounge outfitted with Apple computers, PCs and a 42-inch flat-screen television set. Next to that is a large fitness room — open 24/7 — with rows of exercise machines. A large bicycle storage room allows students to park their ride near the front door that opens onto West Biddle Street.

“We are trying to create a W Hotel style and effect,” said Donnie Gross, managing member of Potomac Holdings, the Bethesda-based owner of the building located at Biddle Street and Maryland Avenue.

“When you step inside, we are trying to create a hip, lively, funky-type experience.”

The project is nearly 85 percent leased, Gross said. It is the latest addition near the urban campus of the University of Baltimore as it stretches outward into the Mount Vernon cultural district amid an ambitious plan to increase its holdings as well as undergraduate and graduate enrollments over the next five years.

UB, part of the University System of Maryland, had an overall enrollment of 6,442 students last fall, including its law school, business school and part-timers.

“By adding this, we think it will be a very good freshman class,” Jeff LaNoue, a project planner in UB’s Office of Facilities Management and Capital Planning, said of the new student housing option that is privately owned and operated.

LaNoue said the university conducted market studies on student housing and found that students wanted to live in an urban setting with luxury amenities. The Varsity, he said, offers all of that and the cost is not much more than leasing a private apartment at sites around the city, which many UB students have done for years.

“If you compare it to where our students have lived in the past, it’s a little less,” he said of the rents at the Varsity. “Plus, there is zero commute cost.”

Anticipation about the opening of The Varsity has been high, said Paul Warren, vice president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Community Association.

Potomac Holdings developed another Varsity student housing complex at the University of Maryland, College Park, which it sold last December to Texas-based American Campus Communities. The company is also working on a student housing project in Michigan, Gross said.

Warren said his group has worked closely with the developer over the past 14 months on the design and construction phases of the Baltimore project.

“We’re pleased with the building and its use and the additional density will be wonderful,” Warren said. “We are interested in more density in Mount Vernon, and this is continuing us on that path. The more the merrier.”

Recent census figures show the Mount Vernon community has grown by 12 percent over the past decade, to just over 8,000 residents today.

The addition of the Varsity — and the opening of UB’s new law school building early next year — has attracted a flurry of new businesses to open in the area, including a Chipotle fast food restaurant, a frozen yogurt store, a convenience store and even a pet store. A chic version of Dunkin’ Donuts — designed like a coffee house and not the typical DD shop — will open in the Varsity’s ground floor this fall.

“You can feel it and it is good,” Warren said of the development.

Charlie Duff, a planner and president of Jubilee Baltimore, a nonprofit city planning group, said the new student housing building is an asset to the Midtown community.

“The last thing you want is a vacant lot,” Duff said of the property, which was formerly the site of Albert Gunther & Co., a once iconic local hardware store purchased by the UB Foundation for $430,000 in 1998. The foundation sold the property to Potomac Holdings in 2011 for $600,000, state assessment records show.

“It’s laid out like a dorm,” Duff said. “And it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of architecture. It looks like it’s always been there. The Varsity will notch up the neighborhood a bit without changing it.”