Thursday, February 21, 2008

Northwest Residents Sound Fury at F&M Student Overlay District Plan

City Council chambers were packed Wednesday night.

Over 150 concerned residents primarily from the city's northwestern quadrant turned out for the City Planning Commission's hearing on the proposed "student housing overlay district."

The Planning Commission's task is to hold hearings and then it has the opportunity to recommend that City Council either approve or disapprove of the amendment.

The zoning revision, requested by Silverang Halowell Development Company in partnership with Franklin & Marshall College, would allow more than the currently-permitted 2 or 3 unrelated persons to share a residential property provided that each has his or her own bedroom with each bedroom being a minimum of 100 square feet, according to information disseminated by F&M at the meeting.

The boundaries of the overlay district would be the area between Harrisburg Avenue, Prince Street, Orange Street, and College Avenue.

Franklin & Marshall is requesting the zoning change because in 2007 it adopted a policy that all students must live in College-approved housing and realized that it could not accommodate "approximately 240" students in its dormitories and other current housing facilities, according to Keith Orris, Vice President for Administrative Services and External Affairs with the college.

That's because the college has more students living off-campus than it realized

"We realized that the majority of our students living in the neighborhood are in fact living in unsafe, unmaintained, illegal buildings in the neighborhood," said Orris.

"The ordinance also specifies that properties for students must have a history of student residence," he continued. Although there's an exception - a property called Twin Towers at Charlotte & James does not have a history of student residence but the college and the developer felt this was a unique opportunity to develop that property and adapt it for this purpose.

The units will be centrally managed by the developer and his subcontractors and "all units that students are living in will be sprinklered, and have modern kitchens and bathrooms."

But it's designed to be a temporary solution. By the conclusion of the 10-year contract period between the college and the developer, F&M hopes to be able to house all of its students on campus.

Planning Commission member John Lyons asked, "Assume you succeed, what happens then?... What do you see happening at the end of the 10 years?"

The developer, Kevin Silvering, who plans to invest some $17 million dollars into the construction and renovation of approximately 35 residential units, explained that this is an opportunity to improve that section of town and create family real estate down the road.

Silvering is a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College and had worked previously with college President John Fry on projects at the University of Pennsylvania - a revelation which raised eyebrows with some in the audience.

Addressing the behavioral policy, Silvering explained, "They're not going to be allowed to have parties - there's a very strict non-alcohol policy and their lawns will have to be kept clean of litter"

At least one person in the audience laughed derisively at the suggestion, saying in a low voice that students are going to do it anyway.

Another concern is parking.

Silvering said that they will be able to achieve 80 parking spaces in various lots within the vicinity of the properties.

Planning Commission members Sam Wilsker, Bruce Evans, and Jean Weglarz all expressed concern both that the parking may not be sufficient and that they'd like to hear more by way of an "exit strategy" before recommending approval of such a plan to city council.

When it came time for public comment, at least a dozen people lined up at the microphone and proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, their disapproval - even contempt - for the proposal.

"Your students will not walk 500 feet," one gentleman said, arguing that the designated parking lots would be empty and that students would instead be parking anywhere they can as close to the college as they can, creating a nightmare for residences and businesses.

"Our neighborhood has become a nightmare," said JoAnn Amelia DuBois of the 300-block of North Mary. "We now live in a community that has been marred by nightly drug activity, drinking, cars that race down the street... College students are not good neighbors," she said.

She concluded by saying, "If this ordinance is passed, I will move."

Another woman who lives on Elm Street also said she would move.

Former Mayor Charlie Smithgall said, "I think this plan was ill-conceived to start with" and "it's going to kill our neighborhood."

Frank Cummins, who lives on West Walnut Street, relates that he moved here from Falls Church, Virginia and was "told that the area was revitalizing itself and that the ultimate goal [for the area] was a community that had more single-family dwellings."

"I wonder how F&M can tolerate the drinking, the noise, the foul language that emanates from the fraternity houses," he said.

"It should not be necessary for residents to have to deal with student discipline problems," said Bonnie Palman of Charlotte Street.

At the conclusion of the 3-hour session, the Planning Commission voted not to make any recommendation but to table the resolution until their next meeting on March 5.

A presentation to City Council will also be made on March 11.

If approved, the first phase of the off-campus student housing program would start in August 2008, although the information disseminated by F&M notes that "Construction activities in several properties have already started."