Town and Gown Relations

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My wife and I bought our house about 28 years ago, and one of the items that attracted us to the house was that it was within walking distance to Villanova University, my employer.

I had always wanted to be able to walk to whatever school I was teaching at, and it’s not just because of the convenience. There is just something about being close to a college campus and having access to all that a college offers, from sports, to plays, to musical performances, guest speakers, etc.

And you don’t have to work at the college to take advantage of such opportunities, and so that is why I think many people choose to live in a college town, close to the campus.

I absolutely love our neighborhood, both for its location and our neighbors. In fact, several years ago when we were torn between moving to a bigger house or adding on to our existing one, it turned out to be a fairly easy decision because of what a great neighborhood we have.

Not everything is perfect, as you might expect. There is an increase in the amount of traffic around the campus during the school year, but there is also a lot less of it during the summer months. In addition, most colleges seem to always have some construction project going on, so that may cause the occasional disruption. There are also the rare instances when student life spills into the neighboring communities in the wee hours of the weekend.

I would think, or at least hope, that most people who move into a college town are aware of these trade-offs. That if you want to have the benefits associated with living near a college campus, then you have to put up with the costs of doing so. It comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. And if you think the costs, such as extra traffic, construction projects, rowdy students, are too high, then you shouldn’t live next to a college campus.

That is why I have been quite puzzled over the past couple of years by the reaction of many of our neighbors to a proposed construction project by Villanova University.

The project calls for some desperately needed dorms, which would be geared primarily towards juniors and seniors who live off campus. In addition, there would be construction of a four-level parking garage to accommodate the students who live in those dorms. There would also be a relatively small performing arts center built across the street from the new dorms, which would align well with our strong Masters in Theatre program.

The spaces where these new buildings would be constructed are currently just large asphalt parking lots, and are somewhat of an eyesore as you drive past the campus. The architect’s rendition of the project appears quite appealing and is certainly an upgrade over the existing parking lots. (It’s sort of a reverse Joni Mitchell thing, Villanova will be paving a parking lot and putting up a paradise…).

The parking lots are currently used by the many seniors and some juniors who are currently living off campus and commuting to campus. If the new dorms are built, those students would now be living on campus, and keeping their cars in the new multi-level parking garage. You would think that such a move would cut down on traffic around the campus, but some of the neighbors who are arguing against the new construction say that traffic will increase. I just do not see how that is possible.

The opponents also claim that the value of their property will decrease up to 50 percent as a result of the new construction. I’m not sure how such an analysis was conducted, but it seems quite questionable to me.

The opponents also claim that the bookstore that will be relocated from another part of campus and a new bistro cafe geared towards the students would hurt local businesses. There already is a bookstore on campus, so I am not sure how moving it from one place to another could hurt competition, and I am not sure how many local residents would want to go to a cafe that is dominated by a student population. Even if some residents use it, isn’t competition the foundation of our economy?

To me, it’s a case of NIMBY, even though the opponents say it is not. And I’d have to agree with them on this one. The college has been at this location for over 170 years, and will be here for many more decades. It’s hard to use the NIMBY against a college that has been there for more than 100 years before most of the houses of the opponents were built.

Perhaps Villanova should have started a NIMBY campaign when there was talk of building those houses.

But that’s not the way things work, so the best outcome now is that these people who are against the plan should move to somewhere where their neighborhood will never change in their lifetime, and certainly they should steer clear of ever living in a college town again.

And I don’t think  am biased just because I work there; in fact when my wife and I retire and look to move elsewhere, we would welcome the chance to live with a college IMBY. For us, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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