by Dan Rowland
As negotiations proceed between the University of Kentucky and the Education Realty Trust (EdR) over the placement and design of new dormitory space for some 9000 students, there is a danger that the relative weakness of UK’s bargaining position may lead to major compromises in several areas, including the quality of the design of these new buildings, the placement of residences for this very large number of students, and the sustainability of the new buildings.
UK is in a hard spot. Due to a long-time failure to construct new dorms, the University needs modern, tech-equipped rooms to attract the brightest and best students. President Capilouto is surely right to press ahead. The EdR deal seems like a godsend, with the university putting up no money, and a private firm constructing and maintaining the new dorms at its own expense, while sharing income with the University.
But these new buildings will be around for a long time, and will have a major effect on nearby neighborhoods, on Lexington as a whole, and on UK itself. The ground lease to EdR for the first new dorm is 50 years.
ProgressLex will post later on the issues of design and sustainability.
Of all the issues, the trickiest is the placement of these new dormitories, and their impact on the surrounding urban fabric. The report recently submitted by Omar Blaik, a national expert on the urban aspects of town-gown relations, provides an excellent blueprint for dealing with these issues. It recommends connecting the new student residences with walkable commercial development. But, most important, it lays out a process by which the very difficult issues can be dealt with in a collaborative manner. The most important ingredient in this process is the creation and regular meeting of an “Anchor Council,” with high-level participation of all higher-education institutions and the city government. Also essential is a careful study of student housing and neighborhood development. The sequencing of these steps is clearly laid out.
I have personal knowledge of the problems facing this Council. The Lex, a project which reportedly houses some 1000 students, was recently built on South Broadway opposite the South Hill Neighborhood, where my wife and I lived for over 35 years. The incidence of vandalism, from human feces on people’s front steps to broken doors and windows, has increased dramatically since the opening of this facility. How can several thousand more students be housed on adjacent UK-owned land without further harm to the neighborhood? Yet that adjacent land seems to be just what Blaik is recommending, since it is an easy walk to both the downtown and the South Limestone commercial corridor.
Resolving this sort of conflict will require hard and collaborative work from all stakeholders on the Anchor Council. The new dorms should not be hastily built until the intensive and time-consuming process outlined by Blaik has had a chance to work itself out. When the time horizon is 50 years, taking a year or more to do this is surely wise. President Capilouto needs to take the Blaik study to heart, and to make the University the leader in responsibly addressing the dorm placement question. This would reverse what has all too often been a destructive university tendency to ignore its effect on surrounding neighborhoods.