Repositioning of Montreal Hotel Assets


Karen Siedman / Montreal Gazette
Published on: November 20, 2014 | Updated: 6:54 PM EST
Student residences aren't what they used to be.
Student residences aren’t what they used to be.

There you are, on the 27th floor of your student residence, taking in the sweeping vistas of Old Montreal and the hills beyond the St. Lawrence River while getting ready to take a dip in the shimmering turquoise and cobalt blue indoor pool.

Your day started at the Lavazza coffee bar. You’ve already been to the state-of-the-art gym, stretched in the Pilates room and completed your homework in the mahogany panelled study room.

After swimming, you’ve invited some friends for a spirited game of pool and air hockey in the game room. Then you’ll all head to the building’s microbrewery before watching the hockey game on a giant projection screen in the multimedia room.

Anyone who thinks living in a student residence means a dingy room with erratic heating, cheap furniture and a Scrabble game for entertainment hasn’t kept up with the times.

Welcome to the new age of student residences; literally the evolution of student living — which is how the newest player in the burgeoning private student residence market in Montreal got its name: EVO.

The swanky downtown student residences housed in the former Delta Centre-Ville hotel on University St. and the former Holiday Inn Midtown on Sherbrooke St. W. may be called EVO, but a more fitting name might be OMG.

As in: OMG, are those tanning beds? Is that an 80-inch TV on every floor? OMG, is that a student lounge or a posh hotel lobby?

This is not your parent’s dorm.

“Book a visit to student paradise,” trumpets the EVO Google ad, and it’s not kidding.

“What we’re trying to do here is brand new and out of the box,” said Olivier Monnais, the area manager who oversees the two EVO properties in Montreal. “We are trying to teach the local market that there are other opportunities than the ugly basement in the student ghetto.”

And while they just opened in September and don’t have that many students yet — the restaurant, coffee bar and microbrewery are set to open in the next month on University — those who have discovered it seem delighted.

The main living area at the entrance of the new EVO residence on Wednesday November 19, 2014. The new swanky private student residences is located on University street in a renovated hotel.
The main living area at the entrance of the new EVO residence on Wednesday November 19, 2014. The new swanky private student residence is located on University street in a renovated hotel.

“I wasn’t expecting anything like this for a student residence,” said Léo Aksas, 18, a student at HEC Montréal from Paris. He can’t get over the gym facilities (he was on his way to a kick-boxing class), and said his mother is happy about the enhanced security. Aksas said the only drawback to EVO is, well, that he’ll have to leave one day.

“They’re going to have to kick me out,” he said. “It’s so nice.”

EVO can only be described as the antithesis to the red square movement in a city that was besieged by students protesting a planned $350 tuition hike two years ago, and in a province where even marginal tuition increases can spell political death.

However, with about 200,000 post-secondary students in the city and universities courting the lucrative international student market, a growing number of private student residences are popping up in downtown Montreal: Varcity 515 on Ste-Catherine St.; Parc Cité on Parc Ave.; the Edison Residence near McGill University’s Milton Gates.

These are not slap-on-the-paint, throw-in-a-cot operations. EVO is a joint venture between U.S.-based Campus Crest Communities Inc. and Europe’s private-equity firm Beaumont Partners SA. They paid about $60 million to $65 million for each of the downtown properties. Monnais said about $20 million has been spent renovating them. (Still to come: a decision on how to best use the iconic revolving restaurant that tops the old Delta hotel.)

Campus Crest has grown in the last 10 years to one of the largest developers of high-quality student housing in the U.S. But its popular Grove concept — complete with outdoor fire pits, volleyball courts and clubhouses — wasn’t the right approach for an urban setting.

So EVO was born. So far there are just three of the student housing towers: one in Philadelphia and two in Montreal. There are about 1,300 beds at the EVO on University St. and 948 on Sherbrooke St.

And there’s no question the arrival of EVO, and all the private residences, has shaken up the market.

“The competition is a concern because they have a lot of shiny new stuff,” said Janice Johnson, managing director of residence life at McGill. “We were worried with so many new beds opening but I think it’s just helping to raise the standards.”

So how can public universities — plagued with budget cuts — compete with lavish digs like EVO?

The single room at the new EVO residence on Wednesday November 19, 2014. The new swanky private student residence is located on University street in a renovated hotel.
The single room at the new EVO residence on Wednesday November 19, 2014. The new swanky private student residence is located on University street in a renovated hotel.

“Our places aren’t as shiny and fancy as the new places, but many parents still want their kids at McGill having that university residence experience,” Johnson said, adding that the university provides social and support programming that is unbeatable for its primarily freshman clientele.

In fact, when McGill took over a hotel on Sherbrooke St. W. for its newest La Citadelle residence, they covered the indoor pool to create a common space. Chalk it up to risk management, said Johnson. And different priorities.

“I don’t think a tanning bed is what I’d want my kid to have,” she said, noting McGill’s numbers haven’t dropped since the new residences opened in the last few years. It still has about 3,000 first-year students in residence.

The new residences often can’t compete with the university ones in terms of proximity, services, events and student integration, said D’Arcy Ryan, director of residence life for Concordia University, which has 900 beds.

Sure, Concordia’s newest residence at the Grey Nuns building has a gorgeous reading room in the old chapel, but Parc Cité has “brain rooms” on each floor equipped with a Mac, PC and printer. And it’s got Tim Hortons providing room service to its tenants.

Hard to top that.

While they all boast bright and modern accommodations — even the newer university residences — and most offer amenities like game rooms and gyms, EVO brings the student experience to a whole new level.

Its plush surroundings scream boutique hotel rather than student residence.

And then there are the tanning beds. Three at the University site, two on Sherbrooke. And offered at no extra charge.

Really? Don’t parents worry about the health risks, a reporter ask.

“Kids are kids and they still have a right to choose to do it or not,” said Monnais, adding that the tanning beds have been a popular feature in the company’s U.S. student residences.

Monnais says the luxurious atmosphere isn’t even what distinguishes EVO. He believes the real attraction is the all-inclusive lifestyle. Other than food, the only additional fee is for laundry. And the fabulous gathering spaces — even the expansive laundry room offers a bright and funky setting — means students don’t have to be cooped up in rooms which were, after all, just hotel rooms intended for short stays.

It’s so appealing that about 10 per cent of the University St. clientele so far is young professionals — not students.

Jonathan Pesce, 21, stumbled across EVO on the Internet. He’s from France, studying neuroscience at the Université de Montréal — and he couldn’t be happier about his choice of residence.

“It’s a very convivial atmosphere and I’ve met a lot of people,” Pesce said while playing foosball with a friend. He particularly likes the elegant study room and the communal kitchen on each floor, which makes it easy to prepare meals.

With more than a touch of envy in his voice, his visiting friend confirmed what anyone who sets foot through the doors discovers: “It’s really nice here.”

(Photos by Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette)