By Samantha Yates
Local landlords are trying to figure out what their futures look like as Washington and Lee University moves forward with its plan to require third-year students to live on campus.
Lexington City Council and Rockbridge County supervisors have given the university final approval to build more than 300 housing units on the back campus to accommodate juniors and other students beginning in September 2016. The university expects to break ground in January.
“Somebody’s going to lose a lot of tenants,” said landlord Michael Stearns, who owns several rental properties along the Maury River known the Pole Houses, and what he describes as a handful of other houses. Most juniors at Washington and Lee now live off campus in Lexington or Rockbridge County.
“If you cut your [rental] market in half, which is essentially what is going to happen, I’m sure we will lose some,” Stearns said. “I don’t know how many, but there is going to be a drastic change in what rents and what doesn’t.”
Stearns also predicted a slump in housing sale prices if landlords who can’t rent their properties put them up for sale and flood the market.
Washington and Lee’s $36.7 million project would be built near Route 60 West and West Denny Circle. The new neighborhood would house 338 students – most of them juniors — in a combination of townhouses and apartments. And even though plans include a coffee shop, pub, dining area and a fitness center, several local merchants and restaurateurs don’t share the landlords’ concerns.
“I don’t think it will have much of an effect on our bar scene,” Southern Inn Manager Michael Fulk said. “We mostly see law students at our bar. I think the undergrad students frequent other bars in town more often than ours. We see students dine here, but we benefit mostly from the times their parents are in town.”
Jackie Lupo, owner of Bistro on Main, supports the housing project.
“I think it’s a really good idea that they have their own space over there,” Lupo said. “I’m sure that it’s going to affect some businesses around, but W&L has given the community so much …. I still think a lot of them will dine out, and just because they have the housing over there I don’t think it’s going to be a gated community all of a sudden.”
Gina Benincasa, owner of the Sheridan Livery Inn and Restaurant, isn’t worried about the new housing either.
“They can still go out to dinner right?” Benincasa laughed. “It’s more people that have apartments that will be affected than people with restaurants – at least I hope.”
Longtime local merchant Alvin Carter owns the clothing store Alvin-Dennis, one of the closest shops to campus. Carter hopes the new on-campus housing will actually help his business. But Carter also owns a few rental properties in town, and he is not pleased about how that part of his business will be affected.
For decades, most juniors and seniors have lived in apartments in Lexington or shared rented houses in Rockbridge County with colorful nicknames like “Windfall,” “Munster,” and “Hooterville.”
Sidney Evans, W&L’s Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, said on-campus third-year housing was recommended in 2012 by a Residential Life Task Force. The recommendation was the result of a year’s work, Evans said.
“I think the primary thing that we saw was a sense of erosion of community,” Evans said. “We did do some focus groups with students …. We kept hearing things like ‘Boy, I really miss that sense of community that I had when I was a first year student; I wish I could go back to Graham-Lees [first-year residence hall].’”
Evans said safety and security of students also played a role in the desire for on-campus third-year housing. She said after a fire destroyed an off-campus house several years ago, and the car crash in December 2013 that killed W&L senior Kelsey Durkin, the university wanted students closer to campus. Former student Nicholas Perry Hansel faces a January trial on alcohol-related charges stemming from Durkin’s death.
W&L first-year student Riley Garcia is in the first class of students who will be required to live on campus. She is excited at the prospect.
“People always talk about, like, the separation between the two sexes,” Garcia said. “How we all live on different hills, like we don’t see each other much after [living in first year housing]. So I think it will be like a good way to come back together and bond after living in the sorority and frat houses next year.”
But Garcia said some first-years are worried about missing out on the chance to live in those off-campus houses.
Some upperclassmen who have lived off campus think the third-year housing plans look promising. Senior Tyler Goldman said he would have loved to live in the proposed housing. He said male students often miss out on living in a comfortable home.
And senior Stuart Lotz said students need to be patient in adjusting to the new setup.
“The plans look great and they have potential, but first-years need to accept that they might not work at first but everyone will get used to them,” Lotz said. “I think they need to put as much out there as possible, like a new gym and new athletic facilities. They don’t have much room for error. It’s like a make or break for the school.”
Evans said W&L students have been involved in the planning to ensure the housing is designed for what they want. The task force worked with student focus groups several times, she said.
“We took a lot of their feedback into account,” Evans said. “So we’re doing all single bedrooms, we’re doing great kitchens with dishwashers and washers and dryers in every unit.”
Before Lexington and Rockbridge County governments gave their approval they heard from merchants worried that the new housing would offer its own shops and hurt their business.
Evans said there are no plans for stores in the new community. And she doesn’t think the dining facilities or pub will adversely affect local business owners, either.
“One of the things we’re talking about is sort of having rotating themes in the dining,” Evans said. “So maybe for 10 weeks it’s Thai or Asian…and then for the next 10 weeks it’s more chipotle style – something like that.
Allegra Steck, manager of Walkabout Outfitter on West Washington Street, doesn’t anticipate much impact on her business from the new housing.
“We get a fair amount of students in here on a regular basis. I don’t think that will change much,” Steck said. “A lot of our business happens on parents weekends, which shouldn’t change whether students are on campus or not. If anything, I think business will be better as opposed to worse.”
And not all property owners and managers share Stearns’ worries about the project’s impact overall on the local housing market. Scott Baker, associate broker at J.F. Brown Real Estate Services, says student renters don’t have much of an effect on the nicer areas of town.
“I guess the biggest effect would just be in some of the marginal student rental areas,” Baker said. “Homes that have been overvalued because of the income they are able to derive from the students could have been substantially lower otherwise. Finding a family to rent some of the houses that are in bad shape will be tough, especially in areas that are popular for students to live in, and the value will go down.”