MANILA -- Going into LA Village, the mall below Youniversity Suites, can be disconcerting. It’s like stumbling into a black hole in CM Recto and ending up in another corner of Metro Manila.
Housed in the old Laperal Apartments building right across San Sebastian College, Youniversity Suites is a paragon of heritage and repurposing. What was once an old dilapidated building has become a clean, secure student apartment complex above a four-story food and events center.
“When we acquired it, it was in terrible shape. It was built in 1946. When we got it, we weren’t sure what we were going to do with it. So we planned to make it into a dormitory because we saw how other dormitories in the area looked like,” explained Stephen Cheng, the visionary behind Youniversity Suites and LA Village who is affectionately called the "Tony Stark of CM Recto" by his young tenants.
Seeing Cheng seated in a barber’s chair in his office decorated with old Vietnamese movie posters and a vintage phonograph, one can see where the quirky aesthetics of the building comes from.
LA Village is the commercial section of Youniversity Suites which extends to the establishments on the periphery of the building.
“We had to make the ground floor commercial. The first thing we did was to invite Coffee Bean in. When they agreed, we had to make it look nice,” said Cheng.
When more commercial tenants came in, Cheng’s group decided to restore the beautiful Art-Deco façade.
A water fountain disguised as a wall of wooden water barrels welcomes visitors into the multi-level industrial chic food and events hall. Looking around, there are eclectic bric-a-brac from 1960s gas pumps to a convenience store in an Airstream trailer.
The space’s centerpiece is a restored World War I German Fokker Eindecker monoplane suspended high above the floor.
The first floor of LA Village is composed of restaurants carefully chosen by Cheng.
“The restaurants were chosen based on food we like. They have to be restaurants owned by the people who know the food. For example, the Japanese restaurant (Rosanjin) is operated by a Japanese guy. The Vietnamese restaurant (SUP) by a Vietnamese national. The dimsum place (GO Dimsum) is operated by a Binondo Chinoy. It wouldn’t be authentic if it wasn’t like that.”
The second floor is made up of food stalls. Budget-friendly options like sisig, takoyaki, nachos, Hong Kong-style noodles, French fries, and more can be found here.
However, there are also food outlets that can only be found here. For example, Lugaw Express branches can be found elsewhere in the city, but LA Village has the only Lugaw Express+. The distinction is that it has more premium items like its bulalugaw, lugaw with bulalo broth and beef mixed in.
Another interesting installation is the Cali’s de Kombi Kitchen which serves fried chicken wings with homemade sauces out of a Volkswagen Kombi that would not look out of place on the beach.
Besides the food, there is a permanent stage for bands and other performances.
There are also amenities that are open to the public inside LA Village like a secluded study hall on the top floor, a convenience store, and a laundromat on the ground floor. Youniversity tenants need not stray far for what they need which comes in handy during marathon study sessions for exams and papers.
Above LA Village are the 85 apartments that compose the original Youniversity Suites. Another 111 units were recently opened in an adjoining building that has Cheng’s offices, a study hall, a swimming pool, and a gym underneath an imposing atrium.
“We’re not marketing this as a dormitory. This is a shared apartment. We encourage young people to bring their barkadas over. Beds are solid wood. We’ve got gensets. We’ve got soundproof windows, even curtains,” noted Cheng.
Going into the lobby, the card-key controlled security is similar to those used in hotels and CCTVs are all over the place. There is a holding area for guests as non-tenants are not allowed up to the units.
The units reflect some of the design aesthetics of the building. Chrome grilles are outside the door and exposed piping are used for electricals. There are rooms for two people and four people.
Cheng’s group has acquired other buildings in the area and is planning to restore and repurpose them the way they did Youniversity Suites. With half a million students and a demand for student housing like this, the group can’t help but be bullish about the University Belt and the surrounding areas.