After Penn closed on-campus housing and advised students to not come to Philadelphia this fall, several dozen first-year students flocked to The Chestnut, a new luxury apartment complex off campus, in hopes of mimicking a normal college experience.
Students who live in the building located at 3720 Chestnut Street estimate that there is a total of 40 to 50 first-year students living in The Chestnut. The building opened on July 1 and consists of apartments with prices ranging from $1,800 to $6,100 a month.
First-year students said they have found a sense of community while living with their peers and are not too concerned about potential COVID-19 spread, because students are spread out within the building and each apartment has, at most, two bedrooms. Some students said that they have heard rumors of other first years throwing parties in their apartments while others said they are not aware of such parties.
Smaller groups of first years, who knew each other through assigned roommate pairings and social media connections, made plans to live in The Chestnut following Penn's closure of on-campus housing. These smaller groups quickly accumulated to one large group as word spread about more and more first years living in the same building through various group chats like the Class of 2024 GroupMe.
When College first-year Sydney Saltiel learned she would not be able to live on campus for the fall semester, she and her assigned roommate in Rodin College House began looking for off-campus housing. After finding out through the Class of 2024 GroupMe that about eight other girls who were also supposed to live in Rodin would be living in The Chestnut, Saltiel and her roommate decided to live there as well.
Saltiel added that she does not feel as if living in the same building as a large group of first years has significantly increased the risk of COVID-19 spread and believes that the benefits of being near campus and friends outweigh the health risks.
Saltiel said she personally knows about 30 other first-year students living in The Chestnut. She said she has gotten to know other first years living in the building by studying outdoors on campus and attending outdoor events at Penn Hillel with them.
“Honestly, [coming to campus] has been a pleasant surprise,” Saltiel said. “I thought that for the first few weeks here that we would just be sitting in our apartments not really being able to get to know anyone, but it ended up being not the same freshman experience but a good one.”
Students living off campus are expected to follow the Student Campus Compact which requires them to adhere to a set of public health and safety measures, including practicing social distancing and using facial coverings. Those who arrived in Philadelphia from areas where there are high amounts of COVID-19 cases were also required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
College first-year Asher Lieberman was initially planning to study from home when his mom, a Penn graduate, suggested he try to find an apartment in Philadelphia to have more of a traditional first-year college experience. Lieberman added that he felt more encouraged to move to The Chestnut after hearing that a lot of other first-year students would be living in the building.
He said that the "big social scene" in The Chestnut has given him the opportunity to interact in-person with fellow peers despite the remote semester.
“There’s already a really big Chestnut friend group and you can always see them walking around together,” Lieberman said. “I’ll go down into the study lounge, and I’ll see like five kids there every time, and I’ll be able to socialize and work with them.”
Lieberman said that he has heard of some first years throwing parties in their apartments, although he has not attended one himself to keep with social distancing guidelines.
Students must refrain from organizing, hosting, or attending events, parties, or other social gatherings off-campus that may cause safety risks to members of the Penn community, according to the Student Campus Compact. Although large gatherings are prohibited by both the University and the city, parties without social distancing were spotted around Penn's campus last month.
The Chestnut Leasing Professional Jazmin Means said all residents and guests are required to wear masks and social distance in common areas in the building, but there is no restriction on residents bringing guests into their apartments. The Chestnut's occupancy rate is currently 29.88%, she added.
College sophomore Luke Elegant, who transferred to Penn this semester from Vanderbilt University and lives in The Chestnut, said he decided to live in the apartment building after seeing a post in the “University of Pennsylvania (PENN) Housing, Sublets, & Roommates” Facebook group. An incoming first year from Costa Rica had posted to the Facebook group that he was looking for someone to room with in The Chestnut, and Elegant said he subsequently reached out to him about rooming together.
“I decided I should just come to [Philadelphia] and see what happens,” Elegant said. “As an incoming student, I didn’t even know where typical off-campus housing was.”
Of the Penn students he has met in the building, Elegant said the majority are first years.
Wharton sophomore and Chestnut resident Alexa Grabelle agreed, adding, “There’s a pretty large population of [first years] that are in The Chestnut. The floor above me, at least I’ve heard, is literally a floor of all [first years] who are living together and kind of have their own social distancing pod.”
Both Grabelle and Elegant said they are not aware of any parties happening in The Chestnut and are not concerned about living with a large group of first years during the pandemic as everyone is "spread out" in the building.
The building features studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments. Residents have access to amenities including 24/7 concierge, a co-working space, a fitness center, and a rooftop pool which is still under construction. Means said construction of the building's upper-level floors will not be completed until December.
Although The Chestnut is currently occupied by a large number of Penn students, Means said the building is not intended to be student housing.
“When Penn did decide to not allow students to go on campus, we know how we were able to accommodate during those crazy times, but we want to make sure it is very known that we are open to anyone over the age of 18,” Means said. “We don't consider ourselves student housing.”