Student Housing – 6 months later and a whole new ballgame

It has been about 6 months since the issue of student housing really exploded in College Park and anyone (ourselves included) would have had a hard time predicting what has taken place since that time. What started off with hundreds of rising seniors losing their on-campus housing in April has progressed – or regressed rather – to over a thousand students potentially losing housing next school year (now with rising juniors thrown into the mix).

During the school facilities fee waiver controversy last year, when local leaders were proposing a massive cut to an incentive Sign of the Timesfor the construction of privately owned student housing projects in the city, we proclaimed that there was “No End in Sight” to the housing crunch. At the same time we harshly criticized leaders for trying to limit the incentive to the Knox Box and Northgate Area – areas of the city which development seemed like a distant dream and non-student housing free-for-all respectively. These days, the Knox Box redevelopment is moving along ever so slowly, but Janet Firth has made a couple big moves since April. The Northgate area at the time was already almost completely proposed for luxury hotels and high end condominiums. The condo market flopped, the support for a TIF for Mark Vogel’s Hilton Hotel project evaporated, and nearly every other project in the area is now marred by financial/regulatory difficulties that make low and mid-rise rental/designated student housing a nearly forgone conclusion. Developers are literally falling over themselves to propose student housing after all the fuss last spring. Many of these projects we are compelled to keep under our hat for the time being, but we count 7 potential or proposed projects without even including East Campus, a Knox Box redevelopment, or any on-campus housing.

The University is proposing some token student housing on South Campus, but we think the importance of on-campus housing is being far overplayed by the Diamondback. Indeed, public-private partnerships like South Campus Commons are riddled with problems and make for especially poor forms of urbanism because they seperate students from present and future activity centers. We aren’t denying the need more traditional dormitories for underclassmen. One hasn’t been built in decades. That being said, a substantial increase in private off-campus housing could bring vacancy rates up from abysmally low levels and bring rents all over College Park back within reach. All this could be achieved without any financial contribution from UMD.

P9280020The Diamondback should stop perpetuating the myth that the root cause of the housing crunch is an increase in the UMD’s enrollment. To do so is the most inaccurate, simplistic, and irresponsible form of journalism that they have yet bestowed upon College Park. The housing crunch is fundamentally driven by a change in preferences among students (especially freshmen). People are opting for on-campus housing only because they are increasingly choosing to live closer to campus and the only decent, affordable housing is on-campus. How can enrollment be the deciding factor in the housing crunch if it has stayed roughly constant for the past 20 years?

Senator Rosapepe’s continuing bull in a china shop politics in regards to this matter is only damaging relationships, causing confusion, and accomplishing nothing. The University cannot fully build its way out of this problem and have enough land to achieve its academic mission for the next 150 years. Despite the senator’s continued insistence that land is the limiting factor for private student housing projects, the city is awash in developable land and developers are finally stepping forward knowing student housing projects can succeed off campus. To legislate our way out of this mess without careful consideration of the situation is to legislate Route 1 into another 15 years of big plans and no action.

Worse than we ever imagined

Dback opinion page - housing crisisKnox BoxesThe student housing crunch in College Park is not new by any means. It’s been going on far longer than the 9 months or so we’ve been covering it. Yet, yesterday’s revelation that 639 seniors will be dropped from on-campus housing next year hit a lot of folks close to home and has triggered a level of student organization that has not been seen since the great Facebook rebellion of 06′. Some groups plan to stage a protest in front of Annapolis Hall every hour, on the hour, starting at noon today to criticize the Dept. of Resident Life’s 11th hour decision. Res life also plans a forum Monday at 1:30 in the Hoff Theater in the Student Union.

Indeed, the 639 number is just the beginning of next year’s waitlist which will be quite a bit higher once it incorporates lesser priority groups. The new Freshman deadline for housing applications doesn’t even occur till May 1st. More enlightened students will realize that if they aren’t affected by this round of eviction notices, their time may come if they seek on campus housing their senior year and don’t secure a South Campus Commons or Courtyards room.

So what exactly caused the crisis?

Clearly, the answer is a change in housing preferences as more and more underclassmen (and undergrads) vie for limited on-campus spots. The crisis IS NOT (we repeat: IS NOT) a result of increased enrollment at UMD, which was capped after the school became the state’s “flagship university” 15 years ago. IT IS the result of the university’s lack of available debt to build new dormitories. As we noted yesterday, UMD has not built a traditional dormitory since La Plata Hall in 1968 nor a suite-style dorm since New Leonardtown in 1982. They tried to build a new north campus dorm last year, but were handily rejected by the Board of Regents.

Who’s to blame?

It’s clear that Res Life erred in waiting so long in notifying students of their ineligibility for housing. That being said, they are not responsible for the failure to build more housing. Annapolis is responsible because tight purse strings led them to demand that UMD’s housing be self supporting. This caused the need, in recent years, for public-private partnerships like Commons and Courtyards, university land contributions like University View, and county incentives/giveaways for buildings like the Towers at University Town Center.

What’s not cut and dry is who’s responsible to house students – the city Jefferson Square Condominiums(+ county) or the university? Yesterday’s post drew maybe the most fierce comment string we’ve ever seen on this site. Opinions ran the gamut, but most will see that really both the private and public sector should play a role. It’s worth pointing out that both have made progress in recent years on the student housing front but somewhere along the way their efforts fell flat. Virtually no designated undergraduate student housing is on the way (in the city or on campus) and even standard (and existing) rental housing is having trouble navigating through the local planning and political process. Indeed the city has recently:

-instituted a rent control ordinance on single-family homes

-mandated owner occupancy requirements in nearly every project coming through the pipeline

-is pursuing the limitation of incentives for student housing via Annapolis

What’s the solution?

Clearly we need a multifaceted approach to student housing that includes the university bearing some of the burden. That does not mean they should pick up all or even most of the slack. The city needs to move forward with incentives for housing in Lakeland, the Knox area, and along Route 1 or surely the their neighborhoods will be so overcome with transient renters that they will be virtually unrecognizable in 15 years.

Jack Perry, a District 2 City Councilmen is quoted in today’s Diamondback as saying, “The University of Maryland needs the housing; we don’t. This is the city of College Park, not the campus of the University of Maryland.”

We say NO to Mr. Perry because his standpoint (the least enlightened on the city council) is a form of mutually assured destruction. Think like a mountain, Mr. Perry, think 5,000 to 7,000 beds.

City Council, Student Leaders, RTCP Reach Major Compromise

Final Impact Fee Waiver amendments

We’re pleased to announce that a major (and in our view: reasonable) compromise was reached late last night on the impact fee waiver controversy. While everyone at the meeting agreed the boundary (that allows a county incentive for student housing) needs to be reduced from its original size (black line) to an area within the City of College Park, there was no consensus on exactly where the new boundary should be drawn. Jim Rosapepe and the 21st Delegation originally proposed (with the approval from the College Park City Council) the red boudary (seen above) and that version of the state bill went to committee last week in Annapolis. The amended proposal approved last night adds several key properties located both:

-west of Route 1 and north of 193


-east of Route 1 and south of 193

After these new areas were added, 6 of the 8 councimembers agreed, in an unusual pro-student vote, that the compromise boundaries (in purple) would more reasonably accommodate long term student housing needs in College Park. They apparently agreed with the reasoning that most of the property zoned “mixed-use” in the city could potentially be student housing and that it should be eligible for incentives as such. There was also talk about “density bonuses” to encourage even more housing right adjacent to campus.

We applaud last night’s decision and are especially looking forward to a period of limited RTCP political activism (after the bill becomes law).

A Council Member’s Perspective on Owner Occupancy

The following is a guest contribution from CP District 2 Councilman Robert Catlin. We encourage all members of the community to either send in material for us to publish or comment on individual posts. Here it is:

Two issues seem to emerge with some regularity about why College Park is not moving more swiftly to becoming the College Park people want to see.

One issue we are told is that the University and the City are not working together on development issues.  As an insider, I do not see that to be a significant issue at this time.  I am not aware of any revitalization opportunities which have been missed because of City-University discord.  While the City and the University have some differences, as one would expect they would, various University committees have City staff members and University staff take part in many of the City’s planning activities.

The City–University Partnership, established about 1999, meets regularly to discuss common concerns, discusses development proposals and looks to formulate positions that both parties can support.  I have been a member of this committee for the past four years, as a University appointee!  The Mayor and various City residents are also voting members of the Partnership, along with high level University officials. Various City and University planning staff also take part in the meetings. The City’s attorney and a banker are also on the Partnership. For a brief time we had a high level representative from the County on the Partnership Board.  In recent years the Partnership has developed Guiding Principals for Redevelopment of the Knox Boxes and Guiding Principals for Redevelopment of the Northgate Area.  Recently the Partnership lost John Porcari, Peter Shapiro (a former County Councilmember from Hyattsville) and had Jim Rosapepe elected to the State Senate, so some changes will need to be made in the organization.

A second issue which has surfaced more recently is that development is being hindered in a major way by modest owner occupancy requirements for condominium projects and conditions designed to ensure that luxury apartment projects do not evolve to be student dominated.  No developer has ever expressed a serious concern with our attempts to achieve some standards here.  So far developers have told us that our conditions are legal and will not impact their ability to finance their projects.  Since these conditions do not cost the developers any money, while the myriad of other conditions requested by the City and required by the County (and often County Council members) do have a significant cost, it is curious why some think that such conditions are hindering development.   The force behind obtaining these conditions is primarily residents.  The various projects would not get community support without some assurance that the projects will house the groups the developers say that they are primarily meant for.  Without these assurances, the projects would be fiercely opposed and not be built (JPI and the City Hall proposal, for example), so it is with great irony that some claim they impede development.

When the developer of The Mosaic at Turtle Creek, situated south of the Knox Box area, was asked why a condominium project called intergenerational housing had no place for students, we quickly learned from the developer and the University that the project would not proceed if the City did not halt such talk!

The luxury housing, both apartments and condominiums, proposed for the area, I don’t believe will attract significant student interest, because the price points for such housing are far above what most students are paying.  Many of my council colleagues and residents do not agree with me on this point.  Owner occupancy requirements (75 percent minimum requirement for owner occupied units) for condominiums have a necessary place, if only to assure potential buyers, that spending $400,000 to $700,000 for a condominium will not turn out to be a bad investment, because otherwise investors may target the development as a way to get rich from student renters.  Sometimes it is claimed that parents will buy up the units for their children to live in and therefore comply with ownership requirements.  Surely that will happen on occasion.  Not having ownership requirements do nothing to stop if from happening either.  The only way to avoid it from occurring would not to build any more housing that was not 100 percent for students.  I could say a lot more, but I will retain some thoughts for my response to the neigh sayers out there.

The Knox Box Area Rethought

Before Site Plan

Brian CarrollThe Knox Box area is commonly cited as one of the College Park neighborhoods most in need of new development. Located immediately adjacent campus and downtown, it is one of the few areas where local political leaders, administrators, and students alike would like to see additional student housing. In October we posted about a Diamondback story describing how many of the properties were being acquired by one owner — the first step to any potential redevelopment. Architecture Masters’ Student Brian Carroll is one of the people who has been thinking about the potential of this area. Two weeks ago he defended his thesis, before an audience of faculty, students, and administrators.

Campus ConnectionHis plan proposed to re-design the district in College Park seen above which includes the Knox Box area and part of downtown (including the College Park Shopping Center). After carefully considering the site’s connections to campus (left) and the high demand for both student, faculty, and staff housing near campus, his proposes re-designing the street system significantly and building a number of new buildings built right up to the street. The site plan looks like this:

After Site Plan

The design would add over 900 units of housing to the area and proposes 75,000 square feet of retail space. His thesis described the building that would replace the College Park Shopping Center in great detail — he proposes to bury the parking in the core of the structure:

Building Profile

What do you think of Brian’s ideas?

Rethinking the Knox Box Area

Tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. in the Gallery of the Architecture Building, architecture and urban planning master’s student Brian Carroll will defend his thesis examining the Knox Box and downtown area of College Park. His thesis proposes a possible redevelopment of this area including changes to street alignments and the design of possible new buildings both on and off campus. We hope to feature some digital images of his work on this site. The defense is open to the public.

Piecing together the Knox Box Puzzle

Knox Box  Ownership
Image courtesy of the DiamondbackKnox BoxesThe Diamondback reported today on the continued ownership consolidation of the Knox Boxes just south of campus. A quick search through Maryland’s Real Property database (complete with purchase prices) reveals that Knox Village Partners LLC and Knox Box Realty LLC have acquired over half of 52 dilapidated units in just one year. The Diamondback traced these two companies to one owner, Janet Firth, who stated her intention is only to provide “high quality student housing” by renovating the existing buildings. She cited thousands of dollars in renovations to the buildings as proof of this, but failed to mention that much of that money went towards meeting city fire codes (indeed student David Ellis died in a fire on one of her properties last year).

The Knox Box Area is a slum, plain and simple, and it will be redeveloped. It’s zoned for mixed use and will likely become very high density student housing. We’ll be following this important area closely over the coming months and bringing you schematics of proposed buildings that an architecture masters student has been working on for his thesis.


We would like to point out two oversights of this post. The first, and most important, is that we mentioned the death of David Ellis without mentioning that in his case, even the existing fire codes would not have saved his life.  The fire did, however, lead to stricter fire code enforcement in College Park and exposed flaws in the system which are still being addressed today (at Santa Fe, for instance).

Furthermore, it should be noted that Mrs. Firth led the way in retrofitting all her basement Knox Boxes with larger windows and housed her tenants in a local hotel during the retrofit. Though Mrs. Firth was Mr. Ellis’s landlord, we did not mean to suggest that Mrs. Firth was a negligent landlord.

Second, we are very excited about the potential redevelopment of this area and see the continued consolidation of these properties as a positive step toward that end.  We are glad to see a local developer taking charge to build what will come to benefit everyone.