University growth causes tension in surrounding neighborhoods

On some weekend nights, Dean and Michele Smith are jolted from their sleep. Sometimes, it’s the sound of broken glass, or the drunken guffaws of intoxicated youth crowding outside their Alder Street home. This is a common experience in their neighborhood, where young adults prowl the streets en route to or in search of parties.

“It never ceases to amaze me,” Michele Smith says incredulously. “Where’s the respect? Where’s the consideration?”

If it’s not broken glass, then it’s a knocked-over recycling bin, crushed flowerbed, or stolen street sign. Occasionally, it’s kicked-in fence posts or beer cans littered across manicured lawns.

While drunken unruliness is not new to the University area, its growing influence on neighborhood livability is symptomatic of a larger issue. As enrollment grows and the University continues to expand, students seeking to live close to campus pack more densely into the surrounding neighborhoods — with far-reaching impacts.

Spikes in development

In 2008, the University began admitting approximately 1,000 additional students annually, increasing the student body 14 percent by 2010. @@[email protected]@

As students began to spill into the surrounding neighborhoods, demand for housing spiked, prompting the construction of several new, multimillion-dollar apartment complexes in just four years — a development that miffed many area homeowners concerned over parties, parking and privacy.

“It makes me sad,” homeowner David Rodgers says. “I would hate to see it change the character of the neighborhood.”

In the University area, many upscale, contemporary three-story buildings now tower over quaint, historic houses — encroaching into residents’ backyards, blocking their skylights and window views.

Rodgers, a neighborhood resident for 12 years, now faces the prospect of students seeing directly into his dining room window once the construction of a new, three-level apartment complex is complete.

“I wish they wouldn’t build it,” Rodgers says.

Another issue of contention is parking. Many new complexes fail to supply enough parking spaces per unit. And as family houses become student rentals, the number of cars per household jumps.

Frustrated community members are now urging the City to ban freshmen from bringing their cars to school, said city councilor Alan Zelenka.

A changing demographic

Fed up with constant construction and noise, some families have even left the neighborhood, Zalenka says.

“We don’t want this to become a rental neighborhood,” he says. “Renters don’t have the same feeling or sense of ownership of their house and neighborhood for the long term that an owner does.”

Many community members agree.

Carolyn Jacobs, president of the South University Neighborhood Association, talks to many troubled residents who fear their neighborhood will start to resemble West University, where 98 percent of homes are renter-occupied, she [email protected]@

Concerned with preserving her community’s family-friendly character, Jacobs wishes contractors would build to a more diverse demographic of renters — graduate students, professionals, faculty, and families.

However, contractor Gordon Anslow of Anslow & DeGeneault, Inc., @@ there is no market for single-family houses. It is student housing that is most profitable and always in demand.

“We go where the money is,” Anslow says. “If you are building stuff that you can’t sell, you will quickly go bankrupt.”

Even in a rough housing market, developers can still make a tidy profit in University-adjacent neighborhoods, where students are willing to pay high prices for housing in close proximity to classes and campus life.

Although some criticize his pursuit of profit as insensitive to the community, Anslow strongly believes his work is a service to the community.

Typically, many of the houses leveled for the construction of multilevel apartment complexes are in poor condition, with asbestos, loose wiring and occasionally a leaking oil tank.

In fact, many students and parents are grateful to have a clean, safe place to live by campus, Anslow says.

“If you want to keep everyone happy, then you just can’t build anything.”

The party effect

With more apartments and less houses, students often take to the streets in search of opportunities to gather and socialize, a trend that residents say is causing more litter, disruption, and vandalism to their neighborhoods.

It’s not that all students are reckless, Michele explains. In fact, the Smiths report having very positive interactions with their student neighbors. It’s the rambunctious few that make the greatest impact, she says.

True, University students are not definitively the cause for neighborhood disturbance. However, police records show that so-called “campus crimes” — citable offenses such as noise violations, minors in possession, and public urination that happen around the University area — have substantially increased from 2009 to 2010.

The rise of infractions could be attributed to an increase in enforcement of the area, explains Lt. Doug Mozan @@[email protected]@of the Eugene Police Department.

Still, “all around the world, density and crime are correlated,” Mozan says.

The EPD report also tracks a dramatic increase in campus crime each football season. These crimes largely plummet, however, during July and August, when the campus community is significantly downsized.

For the Smiths, the summer months bring a relative peace and quiet to their south university neighborhood, easing the anxiety that characterizes many of their weekends.

“It’s a drastic change,” Michele Smith says.

Shouldering responsibility

Despite the upset, no one particular stakeholder seems willing to shoulder the burden for dealing with these concerns.

Although the University is struggling to keep up with on-campus housing demands, some administrators believe the city could have more influence on how housing is managed.

Perhaps the city could require these new developments to have an on-site manager, suggested University housing director Mike Eyster. @@ maybe limit the number of people to a single unit.

In Tempe, Ariz., home to Arizona State University, the city has a zoning ordinance that prohibits more than three unrelated people from sharing a home. In Texas Tech University’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, the limit is two.

City officials, however, say it’s not their responsibility to deal with the University’s housing issues.

“The University can build student housing and stop upgrading and building new sports facilities,” said city councilman George Brown @@[email protected]@in a meeting earlier this month. “I don’t think it should be all left to private developers.”

Although students understand the concerns, some question the expectations of many area residents.

“You’re living in a college town. You can’t really get upset,” says University junior Nick [email protected]@[email protected]@ “Either move away, or try to deal with it.”

For the Smiths, it’s this attitude that needs to change. And although several different agencies — the city, the University, landlords, property managers — could mitigate the problem, for residents here, the responsibility ultimately lies with the students.

A college education is about more than just a degree, it’s about learning how to interact within a community, Smith says.

“If you can’t do that, you’re not going to make it.”

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Deborah Bloom

Deborah Bloom