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UD to knock down Christiana Towers, take over Courtyard apartments

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As the newest Blue Hens get started on their second week of classes at the University of Delaware, this year marks the second of the university’s planned expansion.

Christopher Lucier, vice president for enrollment management, said the expansion is in line with President Dennis Assanis’ vision for the university – moving UD “further up in the level of outstanding public universities in the United States,” he said.

“Central to that is seeing the university as the economic engine, really the economic fuel, for both our city, our state and our region,” Lucier explained. “With our additional students, we have additional students that will help be part of our university community, that will enrich our university community, enrich the Newark community. It will help be able to increase the number of faculty that we bring here, the faculty that will do world class research, spin off new companies.”

Last year saw the university’s largest class ever, with 4,300 students entering the university. This year, the incoming class is nearly steady, with more than 4,100 students.

The growth will happen over five to six years, which Lucier said is to ensure the university will have proper residential hall capacity, as well as the proper space in classrooms and laboratories and the staff to educate them. By the end of the cycle, the overall enrollment of undergraduates will reach about 18,200 – up from 17,700 in the fall of 2016.

“This is occurring over a five-year period so that we're ensuring that we're putting the resources in place here at the university to ensure that the students have an outstanding experience...but also to ensure that we work with the city and the rest of our community in the broader Delaware community to ensure we're ready for, to greet the students and support the students,” he said.

UD also plans to double the graduate student population – currently around 4,000 – over the next decade. The university also intends to increase its faculty by 500-600 over the next five to seven years, which would increase its numbers to over 1,500. 

With that comes the question of where to put the additional students. The current number of on-campus beds for students is 7,756, said Peter Krawchyk, vice president of facilities, real estate and auxiliary services. Approximately 1,000 more beds are projected for 2022, when the university should have completed its enrollment expansion.

The university has plans to build a new $80 million, 600-bed dormitory – South College Residence Hall – near the Morris Library, but due to construction projects along the South Green, the project has been delayed two to three years, Krawchyk said.

Because that residence hall isn’t scheduled to open until 2023 or 2024, the demolition of the Christiana Towers has also been postponed until “approximately six to nine months after the opening of South College Residence Hall,” he said, placing that project in 2023/2024.

UD to take over University Courtyard Apartments

UD is also planning to acquire the University Courtyard Apartments, a private student apartment complex off South Chapel Street, and convert it to dormitories.

The University Courtyard Apartments and South College Residence Hall are intended to replace the 17-story Towers, and the acquisition of the Courtyard Apartments is intended to also absorb the 68 beds that will go offline once Warner Hall, a 104-year-old women’s dorm, is remodeled to become a new counseling and wellness services center. Construction for that project is planned to begin in July 2019 and set to conclude in July 2020.

“Our goal is not to displace any students, as we will offer all of the existing renters the opportunity to remain in the University Courtyard Apartments,” Krawchyk said. “The current property manager estimates that over 150 occupants of the Courtyard Apartments are graduating seniors who will leave the apartments at the end of their contract.”

Caitlin Olsen, assistant director of government relations at the university, said the university plans to take the Courtyards in the summer of 2019 and start leasing that fall.

When building the project in 1999, the developer used bond funding from a nonprofit with the stipulation that the complex would be deeded to the university in 30 years after the bonds are paid off.

However, Krawchyk said the university had the option of acquiring the property early.

 “Now is the right time to exercise that option. Due to the number of beds in Christiana Towers – approximately 1,250 – it is cost-prohibitive for the university to replace those beds with new construction," he said. "Acquiring two-thirds of the total via University Courtyard Apartments allows the university to provide modern housing accommodations immediately while maintaining our goal of keeping the total cost of attendance affordable for our students.”

A loss of off-campus beds

While acquiring the Courtyards will allow UD to meet its need for on-campus beds, it will take 880 beds off the private market, likely leading to more demand for developers to build additional apartment complexes in Newark.

"If you’re privatizing it, taking that 880 beds and putting students in, there’s an assumption that some of the students there might stay and some of the students might leave, and where else would they go?" Newark Planning Director Mary Ellen Gray said. "It’s in a larger context of growth and how to accommodate that."

To address community and city council concerns about student rental housing, Gray is proposing a planning commission subcommittee to examine the issue, similar to a group that studied parking earlier this year.

The subcommittee, brought forth at the July 23 council meeting, stemmed from the  Rental Housing Needs Assessment commissioned by the council to evaluate the need for student rental housing.

The study found that the city needs to add 50 apartment units each year to keep up with demand. However, the study was conducted before UD announced plans to expand the student body.

"Certainly the math would indicate, if the University of Delaware is not building any more student housing, rentals would be needed in the private market," Gray said.

The council asked that Gray bring back a tighter framework for the proposed subcommittee. Gray said she expects for it to appear on the "next feasible agenda."

City to lose tax revenue from Courtyards

UD's looming acquisition of the Courtyard Apartments rankled some city officials, who also lament the loss of the tax revenue currently paid by University Courtyards. Once the complex becomes UD property, it will be tax-exempt.

Councilman Jerry Clifton expressed frustration that UD is taking over the property approximately 10 years earlier than anticipated.

"That is something that is near and dear to me because I was there when that was approved and I supported that idea and concept," he said. "What's disconcerting about this in my mind is that they want to take it off the tax rolls next year and, just over the 10 year period by itself, that means a loss of about $770,000 over the 10 year period. $77,000 a year."

Krawchyk, however, defended the university.

“In order to complete the picture, it should be noted that the university, at other locations, is adding to Newark’s tax base,” he said. “Much of the development that is occurring on the STAR campus is subject to the property tax. So, for example, not only does Newark get a prestigious employer like Chemours, that particular portion of the STAR campus goes back onto the tax rolls.”

However, the university's ability to take the Courtyards property from the tax rolls is unclear. Although construction of University Courtyards was approved in June 1999, the subdivision agreement was later amended in August of that year because council members were unaware of the university's future involvement at that time.

According to that amendment, the property was to remain under the regulations of the city's zoning code, and the developer and its successors, heirs and assigns were to pay all "then-current City property taxes assessed to the Site."

Despite the disagreement regarding this particular property, councilman Chris Hamilton thinks that the university is doing a better job in communicating with the city. He cited a presentation the university gave council about its intended growth earlier this year, which he said was something UD had never quite done before. 

"That's a huge population growth in a city of 32,000," he said. "It gives us the ability to at least prepare because if we don't change anything, then our neighborhoods get overrun and we end up reacting instead of being proactive."

City spokeswoman Kelly Bachman declined to comment.

"The city is studying this situation closely and is not in a position to speak publicly on the matter at this time," she said.

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