Campus design raises concern

Amy Poppinga

Amy Poppinga

Options in a recent redevelopment study would create a unique neighborhood on the northwest side of campus, but local developers question whether the community could support the plan.

The plan features two 300-bed apartment complexes, an active adult living community – including independent and assisted-living units – and campus gateways along the Highway 14 Bypass at Medary and 22nd avenues. It also provides for a new and larger Agriculture Heritage Museum, restoration of the horse unit’s Historic Equine Stable and a hotel and conference center with 94 guest rooms and about 5,000 square feet of meeting space.

Marysz Rames, vice president for student affairs, said the plan is just one consultant’s idea for the northwest side of campus. The version is not final, and campus officials are seeking input on what to do in that area.

“We are currently discussing the proposal with our partners in the community,” Rames said at a recent Students’ Association meeting. “We will look at what makes sense for the university and the community.”

Several local developers have seen the plans, and some are concerned that adding apartments on state land might be bad for the community.

Dennis Bielfeldt, local developer of the Innovation Village and several other rental units, said some community members worry that the apartments would not be assessed taxes since they would be on state land. He estimated that the county and school district could lose between $250,000 to $300,000 in tax revenue each year.

“Those are taxes forever lost to the people of Brookings and the schools of Brookings,” he said.

He also said the apartments are ill-timed since the vacancy rate in Brookings is at its highest level in decades. Developers have worked hard to provide enough housing for students in the community, he said, and he does not think it will be fair if a state entity – which does not need to pay taxes – starts competing with private businesses.

“Local developers can build apartment buildings,” Bielfeldt said. “The university needs to add things that increase the quality of education.”

Al Heuton, executive director of the Brookings Economic Development Corporation, said nearly 5 percent of apartments in Brookings are vacant. Recently, the Economic Development Corporation called about half the apartment units to help update a 2007 Brookings Housing Market Study. When that study was completed, there were very few vacancies in the city.

“A 3 to 4-percent vacancy rate is normal,” he said. “You need a certain amount of vacancies in a city to be able to recruit new people to the city.”

Heuton said apartment vacancy rates are higher due to hiring slowdowns and layoffs, the construction of new apartments and starter homes and the $8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit. With the opening of the new residence hall next fall, developers are concerned vacancy rates could continue to climb.

“Some developers are concerned this could impact some of their rentals,” he said. “? At the same time, the information we’re getting from SDSU says the projected enrollment increase will fill the apartments.”

The consultant’s proposals were based on the 2007 housing market study, Rames said, and so the university will conduct more research before it proceeds with the project. She said the university would partner with someone in the private sector to complete many of the study’s proposals.

“We want an opportunity to collaborate with the community and local developers,” she said.

When the northwest concept was presented to the Students’ Association Nov. 23, President Matt Tollefson and Finance Chair Ashley Dumke expressed concerns about the rent costs. In 2012 dollars, the students would pay $535, including utilities, per person in a four-person apartment. They would pay $642, including utilities, per person in a two-bedroom.

Rames and Doug Wermedal, assistant vice president for student affairs, said a survey of upper-division students showed that some people would be willing to pay a larger sum for higher-end amenities and the on-campus location. Students who currently live in the six most comparable apartments to the proposed units pay 33 percent more than the market average, Wermedal said.

Maria Tracy, a senator for the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, said she lived in some higher-end apartments last year. She agreed that some students would be willing to pay more.

“Five hundred dollars is worth it if you make the apartment worth $500,” she said.

The active adult community received mixed reactions from senators. While some supported the idea and said it could provide clinical opportunities for nursing and pharmacy students, others were not so sure. Tollefson said students have questioned how that community would fit on a campus for university students.

Having retired alumni and faculty return to campus could actually benefit current students, Wermedal said. Living on campus may reignite their passion for the university and lead to increased donations to improve student opportunities.

“A lot of classroom experience ? is based on what donors can do for the current students,” he said. “? A campus address can make it more real for those donors.”

The consultant recommended that the university get additional detailed analysis for the active adult community and hotel/conference center concepts. Rames said the university would further analyze all concepts in the proposal through studies and soliciting campus and community feedback.

“This is one consultant’s report,” she said. “The proposal is up for discussion.”