MORGANTOWN — He calls it “The Claw,” and he’d like to see it used more often. From a seventh-story window of University Place, a new student housing complex in the Sunnyside neighborhood, Ryan Lynch peered down at a block of untouched houses.
“Those are still privately owned,” said Lynch, a developer with WV Campus Housing. “I’d love to see those torn down, too. Little by little, this neighborhood is improving.”
Sunnyside’s change is indicative of a nationwide trend in the college housing market, where students expect their own rooms and ample amenities. Sunnyside, notorious for dilapidated housing and couch fires after big WVU sports wins — and some losses — is undergoing a transformation from a single-family residential neighborhood to a mixed-use, upscale living spot.
The $70 million University Place complex will cost students between $635 and $725 per month for its new appliances and granite countertops. On the street level, a Sheetz grocery store is planned, along with other stores.
Mel Thompson is the principal architect for University Place, with Calverton, Maryland-based Grimm and Parker. He’s worked on similar projects at universities in Maryland.
“Most of the kids going to college in this day and age have their own bedroom,” Thompson said. He said “breakout spaces,” like coffee shops and study lounges, play important roles in student housing.
“We try to stay with those trends on how students want to live, work and learn today,” he said.
New construction has sent signals to other local landlords, too, said Corey Farris, WVU’s dean of students.
“I think the more new, good, nice housing that comes on line, the more pressure it puts on some landlords who haven’t been keeping up their property,” Farris said. “Most landlords are just fine, but you’ve got 5 or 10 percent who aren’t keeping up their housing the way they should.”
However, new investment also has raised concerns about how affordable it is to live close to campus.
“That’s really my main concern with a lot of these new apartments coming in,” said Chris Nyden, WVU’s student body president. “I think they’re improving the quality of living for a lot of students in downtown Morgantown, but you’re also increasing the prices.”
A study released in June by WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research suggests that the cost of living in Morgantown is above the national average, and above that of other college towns.
Although the study didn’t measure average rents in town, housing costs in Morgantown are 14.2 percent above the national average, the study showed.
The study measured the cost of living in Ames, Iowa (Iowa State University), Knoxville, Tennessee (University of Tennessee), Lexington, Kentucky (University of Kentucky) and other larger cities. Morgantown was more expensive than all the so-called “college towns” but still less expensive than cities like Denver, Philadelphia and Miami.
Eric Bowen, a WVU research associate who worked on the study, said that although the study didn’t take into account average college-town rent, “brand new apartment complexes are bound to cost more than older housing stock.
“The question is how much more and whether the trade-off is worth it for students,” Bowen said.
Farris said that what students pay for rent often comes down to the luck of the draw.
“Sometimes, you can get really cheap housing and it’s really good, and other times you have to pay a little bit more for a little better housing,” he said.
Farris said that although University Place and similar WVU-managed complexes could cost more than traditional Sunnyside housing, students might not notice — at least until they have to pay back their student loans.
Instead of a rent due at the start of each month, the university charges students’ accounts, so if a student can’t afford rent now, financial aid might be able to cover it.
Sunnyside’s future looks bright
On Monday, the excavator’s arm came down and smashed one of the old Sunnyside houses with just a few swipes. It grabbed a claw-full of lumber and drywall and tossed it down the hillside and into a dump truck.
Developers are planning a 700-space parking garage in that spot, in place of an entire block of houses.
The houses slated for demolition were stripped of their windows and siding. It’s sometimes hard to tell which ones are lived in and which ones are soon to be torn down.
The neighborhood wasn’t always such an eyesore, said Frank Scafella, 79, a former Morgantown mayor and current executive director of Sunnyside Up, a private neighborhood development group.
Families once lived in most of the houses in Sunnyside, but, in the 1960s, since the university didn’t have enough housing, entrepreneurs bought houses and rented to students.
“In the 1960s, you could buy a house in Morgantown and you could put as many students as you could get into it,” Scafella said. “It just became party central.”
Garbage service wasn’t adequate, so there was trash strewn out along the streets. There wasn’t enough parking, so people parked on lawns.
Basically, since students didn’t own the houses, “there was no incentive to care,” Scafella said. “Before you knew it, the area was blighted.”
Couch burning in Sunnyside became a problem that police, with the help of surveillance cameras, have only recently gotten a handle on, city officials say. Burning a couch there now can mean a felony arson charge.
New complexes have put a strain on the neighborhood’s infrastructure, as well, Scafella said. Sunnyside Up plans to oversee a $1.8 million project to reconfigure intersections, but he said the group could use a whole lot more money.
Despite short-term challenges, though, Scafella sees long-term improvements ahead for the neighborhood.
University Place will have security guards and cameras. Students will need a key card to get in and underage drinking won’t be allowed. Plus, the way rooms are laid out, Scafella said, “You can’t get a couch out the door to burn it.”
Reach Jack Suntrup at email@example.com or 304-348-5100.