The West Campus battle

Drew Finke

There’s a battle taking place in West Campus. Walk past the construction sites and blocks of newly built mid-rise apartments along 22nd Street until you find yourself surrounded by mature leafy trees, green lawns and small bungalows. Take a left on David Street and you’ve arrived at the unassuming ground zero for the battle over the future of West Campus’ quieter side. If you haven’t heard about the political drama surrounding the construction of a proposed duplex on the street, don’t be surprised. Though this issue has everything to do with student housing, none of the lengthy and, at times, fraught dialogue about the issue has come from students.

At issue for the vacant lot on 1917 David Street is the density of students who will eventually live in a duplex planned for the site. According to the developer, the proposed duplex is intended as a quiet place of residence for up to three students per unit, which is the maximum allowed for duplexes according to city code. But according to the Original West Campus Neighborhood Association, a local civic group, the number of rooms in each proposed unit makes it more likely that the duplex will become overpopulated by up to 14 students.

While the proposed duplex contains only three bedrooms per unit, each unit also contains a “study” and “game room,” which neighbors argue will most likely be used as bedrooms for additional tenants. In 2010, Ely Properties leased a similar duplex net door to the lot in question as a six-bedroom home, despite the fact that building plans submitted to the city by Ely prior to construction labeled nearly half the rooms as something other than bedrooms.

Although this small cluster of mostly older bungalow homes calls itself West Campus, it is far cry from the rowdy Greek houses and looming apartment blocks that characterize the part of the neighborhood closer to the University. While census figures show that the majority of the residents are nonetheless renters, this small group of streets has seen an increase in families with children, and those families understandably want to protect the quality of life they’ve grown accustomed to since moving in.

And while neighbor concerns about the noise, trash and parking demands generated by an over-inhabited “super duplex” warrant discussion at City Hall, missing from the debate on whether to permit the proposed structure is a consideration of student well-being. The West Campus location of the lot in question makes it highly likely that, one way or the other, the duplex will be inhabited by students if it ever gets approved for construction.

While more housing near campus is an important part of making affordable student housing a reality, the high demand near the University should not be an excuse for poorly designed dwellings. Regardless of whether the developer of 1917 David Street truly believes that students will use a “game room” or “study” for their intended purposes, if past history and personal experience are precedents, then these rooms will eventually get marketed and inhabited as bedrooms.

According to city code, a room must have a window or door to the outside that can function as an emergency exit in the event of a fire to qualify as a bedroom. The neighborhood association’s latest proposal is to prevent the duplex’s developer from including windows that could function in this manner from the “study” and “game room” indicated on his plans.

In theory, this would prevent these rooms from being marketed as bedrooms. However, in practice, this would more likely result in unsafe conditions for anyone who might choose to use those rooms as bedrooms.

Overcrowding of buildings and neighborhoods hurts the students who live in cramped conditions as much as it does the neighbors who must deal with increased traffic and noise.

Oftentimes windowless “studies” and “bonus rooms” are advertised as “bedrooms” so that landlords can squeeze an additional tenant’s rent from apartments designed for fewer residents. These rooms aren’t just architecturally inferior, they’re also unsafe for the students who live there.

As city and neighborhood leaders decide how to handle 1917 David Street, they should be aware of the precedent it sets for future situations and should give as much consideration to the well-being of students as they do to the interests of property owners and developers.

Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.