"Putting Lipstick on a Pig?"

UNC has been promising for years now to build more student dormitories. Until recently, there had been no new dorms built since the 70's even though enrollment grows every year. The result of this has been more and more students living off-campus, which has lead increasing housing prices as groups of students push working families out of affordable in-town neighborhoods.

With the new Campus Master Plan, UNC has finally begun to construct more housing for students. But lest we breathe a sigh of relief, some members of the UNC Board of Trustees are now proposing to demolish the biggest dorms on campus!

UNC-Chapel Hill's four high-rise dormitories have long been derided as the ugly ducklings of the picturesque campus.

Now, a plan to refurbish them has run into the resistance of campus trustees, who aren't sure they want to spend tens of millions of dollars to spruce up the brick behemoths. Some would rather see the dormitories meet the wrecking ball. Renovation was to start in the summer of 2005 at Morrison, a 10-story residence hall, at a cost of $24 million. But several trustees have questioned the updating, one likening it to "putting lipstick on a pig."
- News & Observer, 4/23/04

I'm not just concerned because I lived in Morrison during my first year at UNC. In fact, I don't many fond memories of that time, so there's no nostalgic attachment. (Really, the high-rises are not that bad!) But I can't say this gives me a lot of faith in the University's promise to help alleviate the community's affordable housing crisis.

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Every estimate I've seen has shown dorms being at capacity. I know that it is nearly impossible for students who live off-campus as freshmen to get into a dorm for their sophomore years (which is a real problem for kids who get suckered into living in Granville). There certainly is a demand for students who want to live on campus, but the buildings are not really accomodating for those of us who want a little more than a roof over our heads with a high-speed internet connection.

"Reducing the amount of dormitory space on campus doesn't seem smart or very neighborly, though. I'm with Matt -- improve the dormitories, make them attractive living spaces, and devise a way to allow students more freedom while living on campus."

These are all good things to consider, but there are other things to consider first. If we expect the University to be able to build more dorms on campus, we have to make certain sacrifices that we don't want to make. For example, the chiller plant episode last summer. If you increase living capacity, you have to increase utility capacities, and that was one of them.

More dorm rooms means more development. If we are truly committed to placing more students on campus, we have to be committed to allowing more development, and alot of people simply don't see that and give it no consideration. Citizens seriously need to ask themselves how much they can back down, and also, how much is too much?

I know alot of this stems from trust issues. I think that UNC should come up with a longterm plan for moving students back on campus and explicitly detail what type of development needs to happen to make that a reality. Hopefully, UNC can give the town enough heads up so that the town would foster such development.

I really think the main point of this discussion should be that there are alot of problems and more on-campus student housing is the solution to it. If both UNC and the town agree that there is light at the end of the tunnel on this issue, I really hope it won't be as painful as so many town/gown issues have become.

Building more dorms is a solution *only* if there is student demand for dorm living. More than half of UNC's students are graduate and professional students (over age 22).

http://www.ais.unc.edu/ir/FB03-04/student_tables_&_figures/03table9.html

Comparing enrollment data against student housing data, there are clearly undergraduates living off campus. But it seems to me that the current on-campus numbers line up pretty closely to freshman and sophomores--those age groups that traditionally prefer (or are required) to live on campus.

http://www.ais.unc.edu/ir/FB03-04/capital_fiscal_tables/03Table35andFigure11.html

The good news, Matt, is that you'd more likely suffer from asbestosis -- scarring of lung tissue, which causes respiratory and heart problems -- than to contract cancer. (Although cancer is a possibility.) You're welcome!

I think Ruby and Matt are both accurate in their assessment of things, which is the problem: as long as Carolina's enrollment is so large, and continues to grow, pressure on surrounding neighborhoods will inevitably increase, and if the dorms aren't competitive with in-town apartments on amenities and freedoms, students have even more of an incentive to move out. I believe the town ought continue to try to figure out a way to regulate the number of people who live in rentals, and how those rentals are maintained, and whether HOA's could be used to establish some standards for parking and appearance -- but that's just fiddling at the edges of the problem. And from the point of view of an affordable housing advocate (that's me), the student pressure on town housing is one of the two roots of the affordability problem. (The other being the development of Chapel Hill into a bedroom community for RTP; interestingly enough, that development has been fueled by similar causes -- a preposterously low number of places to live in RTP.)

Has anyone ever calculated how many more dorm rooms the school would have to build on their campus(es) in order to accomodate, say, a 50% increase in on-campus living? 25%? And does the university have vacancies in its dorms, or are they full up?

When I lived in Evanston, IL (admittedly, a larger town than Chapel Hill, and also on the outskirts of a city that dwarfs Raleigh), there was a ring of downtown development surrounding the campus that included quite a few low- to mid-rise apartment buildings that catered mainly to students. (In size and location, they remind me of Granville Towers.) My impression was that most of the overflow was taken up in the apartment buildings. In the ring just outside the downtown retail/apartment district, large neighborhoods of well-preserved old houses dominated, most of them single-family homes. That ring of single-family housing was probably 3/4 to a mile away from the center of downtown Evanston, and so had sufficient distance to maintain themselves. (There was great public transportation in Evanston, which made thing easier.)

A problem in Chapel Hill is that, by historical accident, many of our oldest neighborhoods, and the ones that have long been home to our town's working class, are either right on top of the campus or right on top of downtown. Almost every expansion of housing in downtown would threaten the character and quality-of-life in one of Chapel Hill's older neighborhoods -- there just isn't enough space between the two. I don't know what you do about that. So I guess Evanston isn't a good comparison, but it was a nice place to live if you didn't mind freezing to death slowly.

Reducing the amount of dormitory space on campus doesn't seem smart or very neighborly, though. I'm with Matt -- improve the dormitories, make them attractive living spaces, and devise a way to allow students more freedom while living on campus.

The good news, Matt, is that you'd more likely suffer from asbestosis -- scarring of lung tissue, which causes respiratory and heart problems -- than to contract cancer. (Although cancer is a possibility.) You're welcome!

I think Ruby and Matt are both accurate in their assessment of things, which is the problem: as long as Carolina's enrollment is so large, and continues to grow, pressure on surrounding neighborhoods will inevitably increase, and if the dorms aren't competitive with in-town apartments on amenities and freedoms, students have even more of an incentive to move out. I believe the town ought continue to try to figure out a way to regulate the number of people who live in rentals, and how those rentals are maintained, and whether HOA's could be used to establish some standards for parking and appearance -- but that's just fiddling at the edges of the problem. And from the point of view of an affordable housing advocate (that's me), the student pressure on town housing is one of the two roots of the affordability problem. (The other being the development of Chapel Hill into a bedroom community for RTP; interestingly enough, that development has been fueled by similar causes -- a preposterously low number of places to live in RTP.)

Has anyone ever calculated how many more dorm rooms the school would have to build on their campus(es) in order to accomodate, say, a 50% increase in on-campus living? 25%? And does the university have vacancies in its dorms, or are they full up?

When I lived in Evanston, IL (admittedly, a larger town than Chapel Hill, and also on the outskirts of a city that dwarfs Raleigh), there was a ring of downtown development surrounding the campus that included quite a few low- to mid-rise apartment buildings that catered mainly to students. (In size and location, they remind me of Granville Towers.) My impression was that most of the overflow was taken up in the apartment buildings. In the ring just outside the downtown retail/apartment district, large neighborhoods of well-preserved old houses dominated, most of them single-family homes. That ring of single-family housing was probably 3/4 to a mile away from the center of downtown Evanston, and so had sufficient distance to maintain themselves. (There was great public transportation in Evanston, which made thing easier.)

A problem in Chapel Hill is that, by historical accident, many of our oldest neighborhoods, and the ones that have long been home to our town's working class, are either right on top of the campus or right on top of downtown. Almost every expansion of housing in downtown would threaten the character and quality-of-life in one of Chapel Hill's older neighborhoods -- there just isn't enough space between the two. I don't know what you do about that. So I guess Evanston isn't a good comparison, but it was a nice place to live if you didn't mind freezing to death slowly.

Reducing the amount of dormitory space on campus doesn't seem smart or very neighborly, though. I'm with Matt -- improve the dormitories, make them attractive living spaces, and devise a way to allow students more freedom while living on campus.

Someone should remind the UNC Trustees how much money universities (can) make from on-campus housing & dining. It's the pig that lays golden eggs.

Much of what is going on with South Campus dorms is still up in the air. While I agree that those buildings need to be replaced, there also needs to a plan to replace it with an equal amount of housing.

"But after four hours of debate and learning of the domino effect that would occur by restarting housing plans from scratch, the Board of Trustees backed away from such a drastic solution and resolved to further investigate working within existing constraints to renovate the buildings.

"There is not a good solution yet," Trustee John Ellison said after the meeting. "The fact is that there is a positive compromise that can please everyone, and it is really important that we find it."

University planners will return to the drawing board to consider both the financial and time constraints associated with renovating or replacing the high-rises with residence halls about five stories tall.

As plans now stand, renovations to Morrison would cost over $64 million. "

Daily Tar Heel 4/23/04

Ruby, you know the problem is more complicated than helping the town of Chapel Hill with its affordable housing issue. In fact, I think the conditions of the high-rise dorms are just worsening the problem. Part of the reason UNC students are so desperate to move into Chapel Hill apartments is because they dread spending more than two years on South Campus. Those buildings aren't exactly loaded with aminities, and they sure ain't cheap neither. Most of the rooms have no air-conditioning; we all joke about contracting asbestos cancer from the ceiling tiles; eight people share a single bathroom (which can be a real bitch when six of you have an 8:00 exam); most students aren't able to have their cars nearby; you have to take a bus just to get to a route which runs to a grocery store; and it's a 15-25 minute walk to class, depending where your class is held. I agree with you; these buildings do not need to come down (not least of which because Morrison is slated for a multi-thousand dollar solar panel project which would mean incredible things for the University), but something must be done to improve their marketability to students.

I lived in Hinton James for two years, and when I wasn't able to move off South Campus as a rising junior, I moved into Chapel Hill proper---my point is this: at least the Trustees are acknowledging there is a problem. We already know that they are quite capable of coming up with some misguided solutions to problems that exist (if you need proof, ask me about "market-driven tuition increases"), but pretending these buildings don't need a serious overhaul won't change anything either.

 

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