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The Left Bank luxury apartment complex, converted from a warehouse by Dranoff Properties, opened yesterday on Walnut Street across from the Class of 1923 Ice Rink. Among those in attendance were Mayor John Street, University President Judith Rodin and for

Walking past 3131 Walnut Street yesterday, passers-by might have thought that they were at the Left Bank -- in Paris. With a scaled-down Eiffel Tower outside, French music filling the air and croissants for all, even Ben Franklin -- no stranger to Paris himself -- made a guest appearance at the grand opening of Penn's Left Bank, a 282-unit luxury apartment complex on the banks of the Schuylkill River. "We've really changed the housing equation, decisively and permanently," said Carl Dranoff, president of Dranoff Properties, the project developer. "People really wanted to live in this area, but there were few, if any, choices -- we were the missing ingredient." A sense of relief permeated throughout the 250 officials and stakeholders gathered for the opening ceremony of the $58 million complex, as the project was completed only seven months after construction began. "It exceeded our expectations in the sense that five years ago, when the University bought this building, only a handful of people could see that it would ever make for a high-quality residential setting," said Tom Lussenhop, Penn's top real estate official. "So to be here today in what is among the best residential buildings in the region is a dramatic turnaround." While Penn owns the building -- originally built in 1929 as a freight building for the Pennsylvania Railroad -- Dranoff holds a 40-year lease to the property, located at 32nd and Walnut streets. Like its namesake in Paris, project stakeholders hold that the additional 800 people who will live and work in the Left Bank will be key in the revitalization of University City. "It dramatically expands the range of housing options in University City," University President Judith Rodin said at yesterday's opening. "But more importantly, it underscores the confidence that private investors have in the vitality of University City, and knowing that this is one of the knowledge hubs for the region, investing here makes very good sense." By mid-to-late this year, the project's vacant retail space along Walnut Street will be turned into restaurants and coffee bars, Dranoff said. "It says to the rest of the city, University City is where the action is," said Paul Steinke, executive director of the University City District. According to University Executive Vice President John Fry, over half of the people who have already leased apartments have come from the suburbs. However, with prices ranging from $1,275 to $4,500, features like wireless Internet connections and an interior courtyard have priced the apartments out of the reach of part of their intended audience -- graduate and professional students. "I thought that they were totally anti-student," said first-year law student Eric Wilensky, who had considered living in the Left Bank. "The prices were too high, although I could have dealt with the prices if they would have let someone co-sign." Second-year MBA student Sachin Gadkari believes that the apartments near Rittenhouse Square offer a better value. "West Philadelphia is still considered unsafe," Gadkari said. "There's better access to taxis and trolleys in Center City, plus more cafes and restaurants." Even with the high prices, Stephen Mullen, commerce director under former Mayor Ed Rendell and a city planning professor, said he believes that Penn is making a "wise investment" in the Left Bank. "If you want a place that's student-only, go to Bryn Mawr or State College," Mullin said. "Penn's plan is focused on trying to get the school more tied into the city." Currently, 80 of the 282 units are leased, and one floor will be completed each month until the entire project is finished in May, according to Paula Baron, director of marketing and leasing for the Left Bank. "I wish that we could do five more of these right away," Rendell said.

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