Tuesday, September 28, 2021

What Killed Student Housing for UT-Dallas?

The Richardson City Council on Monday unanimously approved a request to rezone 13.3 acres next to the university from technical office to a planned development.
The housing will be open to the public but mostly serve faculty and graduate students.

Just kidding. Check the date on that story in The Dallas Morning News. It's from 2014. Richardson resident Marcia Grau uncovered it. The article reports on the Richardson City Council's approval of the Northside apartment development. Oh, about that "The housing will be open to the public but mostly serve faculty and graduate students." Northside has to follow the same Fair Housing Act regulations that would apply to this year's private student housing project. What the Council had no problem with in 2014 took up much of the Council's handwringing this year.

The outcome this week, seven years later, was decidedly different.

This week, after nearly a year and five votes (three by the City Plan Commission, two by City Council), the Richardson City Council rejected an application for a different student housing project near UT-Dallas. Three council members (Justice, Corcoran, and Arefin) supported student housing. Four council members (Dubey, DePuy, Hutchenrider, and Voelker) had a different message for students: DROP DEAD.

At the end of my last blog post on the subject, I said, anticipating the rejection, "All that will be left for us then is to wonder why, because the reasons given by the CPC don't stand up to even cursory examination." So, here I sit, wondering why.

There were plenty of reasons given for a "no" vote. Maybe I should just take everyone at their word. I have two problems with that. First, I listened to all the reasons and found them wanting. Maybe that's why there were so many reasons. People valued quantity over quality. Second, maybe more important, was the tell at the CPC, when the "no" votes were all polled, asking what the applicant could do to change their minds. The question was met by silence. There was nothing the applicant could do to his application to get them to support it. Their attitude seemed to be, "Just Say No" to student housing. I heard the same attitude at Council. No one said they could change their vote with just this or that change in the application.

Maybe people were being influenced by deep shifting currents in Richardson that they themselves couldn't articulate, or maybe weren't even aware of.

A comment by Louis Burns, a UT-Dallas graduate and Richardson resident who has offered good advice about this case, might contain a clue. He addressed the complaint that a student housing project would bring added traffic. He said there's a flaw in that thinking. I realized he's right. The only way to reduce student traffic around UT-Dallas is to get rid of the students themselves. Simply forcing students to live farther away from campus won't help. Students still need to travel to campus, even if you force them to live in homes in Cottonwood Creek or Greenwood Hills or apartments in Plano or Dallas. As they converge on campus, they increase traffic near campus. Banning new apartments near campus doesn't solve the problem. On the other hand, accommodating students closer to campus, as this project would have done, would reduce traffic of students commuting to campus from farther way.

You can't have a university without students. The insight is that maybe it's not the traffic that's the problem, it's the students themselves. What people want is not smart ways to accommodate a growing university, but a way to STOP THE GROWTH OF UTD. I suspect the council members who voted to deny construction of more housing don't see it that way. They probably see themselves as being fine with continued growth of UT-Dallas, expecting the students to magically find housing somewhere. Maybe UT-Dallas itself, against all evidence, will suddenly build housing to get its ratio of students on campus up from the current 19% to its goal of 25%, which would still leave it way below the 40% national average at state universities. Many of the other 75-81% of students will crowd into single family homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. Council members said, implicitly, they are fine with that. What that will do is create even more tension in those surrounding neighborhoods. Eventually, that tension will boil over.

Then I came across another news article, this one from 2021 and from California, of all places, that supports this insight.

Judge Orders UC Berkeley To Freeze Enrollment After Neighborhood Group Sues.

Enrollment at UC Berkeley has grown wildly over the past 15 years, causing a severe housing shortage in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Source: KPIX.

This story from UC-Berkeley may be a harbinger of the future for Richardson. I'm afraid the City Council's denial of more housing signals not just "no" to a housing project, but a "yes" to more friction between our university and the adjacent neighborhoods. That friction will eventually cause Richardson to turn its back on Richardson's own university. Ten years ago I had a dream: "The Future of Richardson is in Beijing". I fear that yesterday's vote is the bell tolling on that dream.


Francis Ford said...

a bunch of raving nimbies

Anonymous said...

The answer is on page 30 of this document.

Mark Steger said...

"Anonymous", that page 30 was discussed in this blog post: "Update on That Land North of UTD" from June.

Louis Burns said...

I'm not sure what it will take to finally get more student housing. Nothing, apparently, will change their minds. My next-door neighbor, an Eagle Scout neuroscience senior, overdosed and died after a fraternity party in the house in 2014. Students are literally dying in our neighborhoods and it's not enough to move the council.

Perhaps we just need some new councilmembers that can simultaneously recognize the glut of vacant office space and the shortage of student housing that exists right there next to the university they claim to care so much about.