Student Housing: What’s Up in New Development

Tap Student Power: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I really like downtown Athens. Even though you could walk all its streets in 90 minutes—and that’s at a leisurely pace with time to stop in a few shops—the place is lively and quirky. But I’ll admit that I’d like to be able to do and see more there. Give me an Apple Store, a few more bookshops, a good grocery, maybe a Gap store, a museum of some sort and another permanent gallery space for local artists and University of Georgia students and faculty to show off their work. Give me that, and I’d be very happy.

Attracting such stores and amenities while keeping downtown compact and walkable—not stuffed with more cars and paved over with parking lots—depends on adding residential density downtown or nearby. One natural way to do that is to get more UGA students to live there.

There are about 25,000 undergraduate students at UGA now. There are another 6,100 or so grad students and about 1,600 students in professional programs. Combined, they represent a powerful economic force. Let’s harness at least some more of that force to help build our downtown. It’ll be good for Athens, for UGA and for the students, too.

Student District Along Oconee Street?: If you stand atop the North Campus Parking Deck and look East across Mitchell Street toward Oconee Street, you’ll see a ramshackle landscape of crude parking lots terminating with the abandoned Armstrong and Dobbs Building Materials warehouses across Oconee Street.

Imagine instead this area—between Mitchell Street and along either side of Oconee Street—filled with a variety of high-density student-serving buildings and facilities. Some of them would be UGA residential halls. Some might be privately developed apartments or condos designed primarily for the student market. Any needed parking decks could be mixed-use structures, containing dwelling units with restaurants, coffee shops, exercise facilities and other stores. Ideally (to me at least), the buildings would be appealing modern structures, perhaps taking design character cues from the warehouses and railroads that formerly defined the area.

Adding student housing in other areas such as on Baxter Street between Lumpkin Street and Church Street would also contribute downtown—benefiting density. UGA’s master plan currently contemplates building housing there at some point.

Right now, about 7,400 students live on-campus. This includes most of the nearly 5,000 freshmen, who are required by UGA to live there. If UGA extended the on-campus living requirement (or perhaps applied a near-campus living requirement) to the 5,900 or so sophomores and then actually housed the bulk of that increased number downtown or nearby, you could easily create a lively student district and make a major addition to downtown’s density.

In addition to residential requirements, UGA might also want to boost efforts to actively encourage students to live near campus. UGA’s strategic plan called for having 9,000 students live on-campus by 2010. They’re a little shy of that now, but this proposal could put them over the top.

How to Build It: In 2004, UGA opened East Campus Village—a complex of student residential halls that house about 1,200 students. That project was financed under a pioneering partnership between the Athens Housing Authority, which has the power to issue tax-exempt bonds, and the UGA Real Estate Foundation. For the construction of any additional housing on UGA-owned land, this kind of partnership can do the trick.

But to build on lands not owned by UGA—and most of the land in the near campus area I’ve mentioned is privately owned—a broader partnership will be required. Private real estate developers and Athens-Clarke County will have to be at the table.

Creating a viable student-centered district where I’m suggesting is something that will need thoughtful planning—which is yet another reason to move forward with developing a new master plan for downtown.

Years ago, UGA considered building student housing here and decided it wouldn’t work financially. And maybe it still won’t, but given that we’ve got new leadership at the university and locally and given all the benefits that could flow from such a development, I think it’s worth another look.

A Win, Win, Win, Etc. Situation: Such a district would generate lots of benefits. It would create an attractive corridor leading into downtown. ACC’s planning commission has long identified Oconee Street as an important entryway to downtown. As I mentioned in an earlier column, getting students to live on or near campus will free-up single-family homes in neighborhoods across Athens-Clarke County for use by families and help lower housing costs for everybody else. This might also help reduce any—how to say this?—day-to-day living tensions that can arise when you mix college students into neighborhoods with people who need to get up in the morning.

Students themselves would gain in multiple ways. First, there’d be cool new housing options available—and not in cloistered area on campus, but right in the thick of things downtown. Living on or near to campus and downtown also means not having to drive and park—which reduces transportation costs and hassles and enhances air quality for everyone. Studies also show that on-campus living helps students better enjoy and succeed at school.

Of course, there are some problems to work out with this idea. In addition to the land acquisition, financing and planning challenges mentioned, we’ll need to figure out ways to keep downtown student housing affordable and to make sure that even a limited exodus of students from far-flung residential neighborhoods doesn’t lead to vacant housing there. The benefits I’ve just listed are good reasons in themselves for seriously exploring this idea. But the opportunity to boost downtown density—thus improving our chances to add more stores and amenities and collect more property and sales tax revenues—is the best reason to want those stores.

[flagpole.com]

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