By Vicki Smith
West Virginia University announced Friday it’s partnering with Paradigm Development Group LLC to build a $70 million residential and retail complex called University Place, a project school officials say will transform a blighted section of Morgantown and create much-needed quality housing.
The build-out is expected to be done by the fall semester of 2014, but the demolition of existing houses and at least one bar in the Sunnyside area will begin soon: in late December or early January. WVU said it will immediately begin contacting students to help them find other housing for the spring semester.
Dean of Students Corey Farris said nearly 100 students may be affected in the initial phase, though he received the list of addresses Friday morning and hadn’t yet determined the precise number. Those who live in the area bound by University, Third, Houston and Grant streets will be moved out first.
WVU will work with them to ensure that they don’t face higher rents as a result, Farris said. WVU will compensate either the student or the landlord for what it considers “reasonable” price differences. WVU also will hire local movers to assist with the relocations.
“The bottom line is, no one’s rent is going to go up,” he said. “We know it’s disruptive to the people involved, so we’ll do everything we can to make it easy on them. We’re not going to leave them in the lurch.”
There are many options for those displaced, Farris said, including The Augusta apartments, university-owned apartments near the medical center and traditional residence halls with meal plans. Farris’ staff has also reached out to landlords with vacancies.
This week, WVU’s Board of Governors approved a $14.5 million real estate deal with Paradigm and RCL Holding for 39 parcels on five acres in the run-down section of Morgantown that’s long been dominated by old student housing.
Though the deal was reached in May, it was only revealed to legislators in a report last month and made public this week — a level of secrecy that has spawned harsh criticism of WVU on social media. Student Government Association President Zach Redding sits on the Board of Governors, but he didn’t immediately return messages about the project Friday.
WVU President Jim Clements says the project is a transformative initiative for a part of town that needs it. It also supports WVU’s master plan, which includes creating more housing to accommodate the school’s ever-expanding enrollment.
Narvel Weese, vice president for administration and finance, says the area is near Summit and Honors Halls, and just a few blocks from the downtown campus.
With 297,000 square feet of rentable space and 268,000 square feet of student space — or about 980 beds in 265 apartments — University Place promises to be “amazing,” Weese said. The plan calls for two multistory buildings and 2 acres for about 400 parking spaces.
The residential units will have private bedrooms and bathrooms, kitchens, wireless high-speed Internet, air conditioning and laundry facilities — all amenities that Weese says students have long requested.
“In a time when other parts of the country are suffering economically, Morgantown and WVU keep making smart investments that keep the community economically viable,” he said.
The designers are Grimm and Parker Architects of Calverton, Md.
Townhouses are also planned, separated from the two main buildings by a pedestrian path.
Mayor Jim Manilla says the new construction will not only have a long-term positive impact on the community, but could also help curtail the street and trash bin fires that students have made the area known for.
The development will also include nearly 30,000 square feet of retail space, with tenants that are expected to include a grocery store, a restaurant and a fitness center. A substation for WVU Police is also planned; officers currently set up command centers outside Summit Hall when they’re bracing for postgame revelry and rioting.
University Place is expected to generate $1.5 million in construction-related business and occupational taxes in the early phases, plus taxes on student housing and retail rents in the future. Down the road, officials like Manilla hope the neighborhood will attract other businesses.
Just last month, WVU acquired more than 25 acres, including rental properties, three other lots and an unoccupied apartment building, for about $10 million. Last year, WVU bought the Augusta apartment complex property out of bankruptcy for $13.1 million.
WVU has been aggressive about acquiring property when it makes sense, and Board of Governors Chairman Drew Payne said Thursday that people should expect that to continue “where it makes sense for the university and the city,” particularly around the Evansdale campus.