Business: Big Man at Campus

As the CEO of Campus Apartments, David Adelman helped transform West Philly. Now he’s helping college kids all across the country live the luxe life. Tanning bed, anyone?

At the time, the neighborhood didn’t look like much. “University City in 1996? Not a great situation,” says Penn’s then-executive vice president, John Fry, now president of Franklin & Marshall College. “A lot of people were in ‘Let’s just put up a fence around the campus’ mode.” Not only was Penn’s main drag replete with parking lots and depressing buildings, but students were paranoid and afraid to leave campus. Penn president Judy Rodin was intent on changing that, and she and her team crafted a list of what they’d need to stabilize and develop the neighborhood: cleanliness and safety, adequate housing, decent public schools, retail amenities and jobs. Penn required some outside help with the “decent housing” part.

“We were trying to get order out of chaos. Once we got stability on the ground, housing was next,” says Fry. But when he approached local landlords in hopes of partnering toward better, safer student housing — asking for proper maintenance, lighting, sidewalks and security — he was turned down again and again. The lone exception was Adelman, likely because Campus Apartments was already headed in that direction.

“We were concerned about lighting and safety even before Penn was on board,” Adelman says. “In the ’90s, there were murders and stabbings. University City was really bad news. They used to call the McDonald’s there ‘McDeath.’” Horwitz had taught Adelman that their tenants were somebody’s children, and they had a responsibility to take care of them, whether that meant adequate maintenance, proper lighting or paved sidewalks.

Plus, here was a business opportunity.

The dynamic in a nutshell: Campus Apartments works with the university to rehab off-campus homes for students and faculty. Campus owns two-thirds of the properties; Penn owns the rest. Either way, tenants pay their landlord, Campus Apartments. “Universities should build classrooms, build bio-tech centers, things like that,” Adelman says. “Let us focus on the residential.”

The leasing love affair between Penn and Campus Apartments is still hot and heavy. Today, Campus Apartments owns and operates approximately 165 off-­campus properties near Penn, and manages another 70. “We’re talking over 200 properties that we’ve spent millions of dollars on,” says Adelman.

“David was systematically going through the inventory,” says Fry, “buying small-to-medium-size apartment buildings, stabilizing student housing. He was always the gold standard in terms of how he fixed up his buildings and managed them. The buildings were coveted by Penn students.”

And if you build it — “it” being a clean, safe place to lay your head — they will come. Slowly but surely, the next thing built in the area was reassurance. “University City was always a place where Penn was, but now it’s a residential and to some extent commercial choice for people,” says lawyer Lenny Klehr, who has long represented Campus Apartments. “David took real estate that served a utilitarian purpose and, because of his ability and vision, improved its quality. He really became one of the forces in the transformation of University City.”