Warren Burke is approaching his 20th year in the real estate industry, but, in many ways, he’s just getting started. Indeed, the vice president of development for Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments is still in the ascent of his career, which is one reason why he’s been named multifamily executive’s 2012 Rising Star of the Year.
In the time since his first job, as associate project architect at Kennedy Associates in St. Louis, Burke has certainly seen his star rise. He’s become an expert in every aspect of development and construction in the student housing game. In just his fifth year with Campus Apartments, he’s already helped steer the company to the top of the student housing world with his financing and construction know-how. At a time when universities have their backs against the wall due to reduced endowments and declines in state funding resulting in spending cuts across the country, Burke has gotten creative with and continues to expand the company’s student housing portfolio. That’s how he was able to lead the charge this year with more than $125 million in development volume and take advantage of public–private partnerships.
Burke’s background and formal education is in architecture. As a lover of planning and design, his architecture skills lend themselves perfectly to multifamily development management. His intimate knowledge of construction logistics helps him to meticulously oversee and put his stamp on each of Campus Apartments’ development projects.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Burke made his first foray into the student housing industry, when he joined Dallas-based JPI as a vice president and development manager. Unfortunately, the company exited the student housing business in 2007 and Burke was left as the one turning off the lights on his way out. According to Burke, this was a pivotal moment that directed his future in student housing.
“At that point in my career, I had a lot invested in student housing,” says Burke. “I had kind of carved out my niche in the student housing industry. So when an offer came in from Campus Apartments, I felt like it was a great fit with my business style.”
So Burke joined Campus Apartments in 2007. Needless to say, favorable market conditions didn’t exactly lay ahead of him. But he was brought on at a time when the company was in a good position to weather a storm. It was well capitalized and never relied on a solitary method of financing, giving Burke a lot more options to pursue new developments in good times and bad. “It’s always a challenge to find financing. But the bond markets have made terms better and made things easier,” says Burke.
Burke was brought on because Campus Apartments was looking to expand on its heavy Philadelphia presence and establish a national footprint. And even though he never expected to be living on the East Coast, he quickly entrenched himself in the local environment, studying the landscape and city zoning codes. It wasn’t long before his talent for making projects run smoothly was recognized by the company’s top executives.
“Warren is one colleague who stands above the rest,” says David Adelman, president and CEO of Campus Apartments. “He’s a natural leader and strategic planner, and his vast experience in real estate transactions and development projects has made him an invaluable asset.”
Burke, who takes a hands-on approach to all of Campus’ development projects, has overseen some landmark deals in the company’s history over the past year or so. The first came at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pa. By working closely with the client, Burke allowed the institution to integrate its culture and previous student housing experiences into the project in a move that ultimately sealed the deal.
In November 2011, Burke oversaw the groundbreaking on the largest-ever new development at Shippensburg University. The project marked the first state system project in a public–private partnership for Campus, and it was Burke who organized the $200 million, three-phase project. According to Daniel Bernstein, Campus Apartments’ executive vice president and chief investment officer, Burke was able to land the deal by customizing the development detail to keep the school’s best interests in mind.
“As the student housing industry continues to face the challenges of increasing enrollments and decreased spending, Warren has been very successful in providing feasible, affordable solutions that are unique to each of our university partners,” says Bernstein. “This allows them to preserve capital for other academic initiatives, an issue that was extremely important to Shippensburg University.” Burke took charge of the financing, the development schedule, and the management of each construction phase. The first phase, expected to be delivered by January 2013, is a $70 million project. The entire development is scheduled to deliver 2,700 new beds to the campus by 2015.
And in a similar move, Burke secured financing for a 413-bed student housing property at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. In fact, the university was so pleased with the financial solutions Burke delivered that it retained Campus Apartments to serve as developer and construction manager for the $32.4 million project. The freshman residence hall represents an opportunity for Campus Apartments to continue an ongoing public–private partnership with the university that began a few years ago. Burke once again utilized his unique skill for finding a way to meet the institution’s specific planning requirements to make the partnership mutually beneficial.
“His leadership on the Shippensburg University and Saint Joseph’s University projects has helped Campus become a well-known, trusted partner in public–private initiatives,” says Adelman, who cites Burke’s strategic nature and vast experience as key factors in Campus ranking among the top student housing firms.
Aside from Shippensburg and Saint Joseph’s, Burke has also negotiated public–private partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania, Emory, and Franklin & Marshall.
Extended Staying Power
But perhaps the most highly acclaimed and market-expanding project undertaken by Burke was the recently opened Homewood Suites by Hilton in University City, in Philadelphia, the student housing giant’s first venture into the hotel business. Campus Apartments says the project was in the works for years before it finally got the go-ahead to break ground on the development. And planning was certainly not easy, especially since the company is used to designing student housing, not extended-stay hotel units.
The project was a result of the University of Pennsylvania reaching out to Campus Apartments in 2007 and stating the need for a local extended-stay hotel to cater to local businesses and individuals spending long periods of time at the local hospital. According to a statement from Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president for the University of Pennsylvania, Campus Apartments’ involvement in the area was good for everyone.
“Campus Apartments is a terrific partner in Penn’s comprehensive strategy for making University City a terrific place to live, work, and play. They’re proven players in the development community, and whether it’s adaptive reuse, historic preservation, or property management, they consistently deliver a product we can count on to improve the quality of life for this community,” Carnaroli said in the statement. It was uncharted territory for Campus Apartments, but luckily it had just added Burke to its team and he was more than up for the challenge. He was instrumental in negotiating a deal involving government and private funding that secured financing for the $50 million project.
“This was a very transitional period and we worked for years on this project,” says Burke. “Initially we were met with resistance from the community, so we wanted to be mindful of their needs and build something that acknowledged that we were part of this community.”
Campus owns 140 properties in Philadelphia alone, so finding land for the hotel was not the issue. It was more about choosing the right location. Ultimately, Burke settled on a plot of land on Walnut Street, right next to Campus Apartments’ headquarters, to solve the zoning issues. The original location had to be changed because the community was very resistant to having a high-rise put up in their neighborhood.
“We had dirt on Walnut Street. What better place to do it than in your own backyard?” says Burke. “The site wasn’t planned for a hotel, so we went through a lot of design iterations to cater to the fact that we were working with a narrow space. We really felt it was an optimal location.”
Burke even had a hand in the planning stages of the development, as he worked with the architects on design issues, given his strong architectural background.
The hotel opened in May this year after a two-year development process that saw many architects come and go in the planning stages, with Burke wanting to make sure the company’s first go at the hotel market was done right if it wanted to have any credibility for future expansion in the sector.
Currently, Campus owns $1.5 billion worth of assets across the nation throughout 25 states. And this year, the company launched its inaugural health and wellness challenge for its students and employees to further immerse itself into the lifestyle of its clients. The challenge promotes a healthy lifestyle and weight-loss goals by encouraging peer support and has led to a zero percent increase in company health insurance costs this year.
Moving forward, Burke sees tremendous potential for Campus Apartments to grow its student housing footprint across the nation. He even says that though Campus still needs some time to test the waters with its inaugural hotel venture, that the idea is very much alive, and that future expansion in that asset class is not out of the question. And he also sees plenty of potential in his home-base market of Philadelphia moving forward.
“We’re on the lookout for developments coast to coast. But it’s hard to ignore the amount of opportunities we see right here in our backyard,” says Burke. “But we’re looking to expand where we do deals. We feel like there will be continued opportunities around the country to pursue student housing and hotels alike, especially with interest rates at some of the lowest levels they have ever been. It’s a pretty exciting time.”