Posted: December 7, 2012 at 12:07 am
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Najeen Guest, a junior at West Virginia University, had no idea the university planned to raze her house as part of a large-scale renovation of the Sunnyside neighborhood – until she read about the plans on the internet in late October.
She is among many students who are outraged at the university’s lack of transparency and efforts to oust them from their off-campus housing within weeks. University officials apparently reached a final agreement in May to purchase 39 properties in Sunnyside, a neighborhood of Morgantown walking distance from campus. But they did not make the plans public until late October. Nearly 130 students are being asked to move out of their homes by the end of fall semester.
“Everyone’s pretty upset,” says Guest. “Nobody really even knew what was going on.”
The Sunnyside neighborhood, which contains many older, unmaintained houses rented by students, is known for its parties, couch burning and most recently, riots. Some students say the university’s plans to renovate a large swath of Sunnyside are an attempt to eliminate a trouble spot and improve the school’s reputation as a rowdy party school. However, university officials say that they want to demolish 39 buildings on more than five acres in Sunnyside to make way for much-needed student housing and a sub-station of the university police department. The plan is projected for completion by the fall of 2014 and includes two multi-story buildings that will add 1,555 beds to University housing, along with an outdoor community space, parking facilities, a grocery store and a fitness center, according to a WVU news release.
State documents show that the university has already spent $70 million on this project, which includes the purchase of off-campus housing properties on Grant Avenue, University Avenue, Third Street, Houston Avenue, Jones Avenue, and Quay Street. WVU purchased the properties from two private companies: Paradigm Development Group and RCL Holding, both based in Morgantown. The two real estate companies spent months quietly buying the properties from individual landlords.
The project’s initial construction is expected to generate $1.5 million in construction-related business and occupation taxes alone, according to a WVU press release. The university is also expecting revenue from businesses that might locate in Sunnyside because of the retail amenities the project includes, as well as tax revenue from the student housing.
Many students are upset with the university’s lack of transparency and haste to evict them. A number have hung signs outside their houses saying things like “Take Me Home Country Roads, Oh Wait We’re Homeless,” and “We’re Not Leaving.”
Guest found out via Twitter that her house would be torn down and received a letter from the university a few days later, asking her and her roommates to move out at the end of fall semester.
However, John Bolt, the university’s Director of University Relations, says that students will not be forced to leave in December. “We aren’t chasing students out onto the streets,” he says. “We are trying to stick to the fall 2014 completion date.”
The university has promised to cover all moving expenses and officials say they will also cover the difference in new housing fees. Many students were even offered incentives to move early. On a voicemail left for Guest, one university official offered her $1800 to leave her home by the end of December. Her roommates, however, were not offered any incentive, and some of her neighbors were offered $3500, Guest says.
The university also promised to cover all moving expenses and told students they would cover the difference in new housing fees.
Some students seem to be happy about the university’s eviction request, according to Guest. One student said that his house on Grant Avenue was condemned this semester because its windows were broken earlier in the year. The students living there would have been forced to move anyway and now their moving expenses will be covered, he says.
The demolition of a large portion of Sunnyside is not only affecting students living there. For example, the university plans to raze the only bar in Sunnyside, Mutts Sunnyside, which is one of the oldest bars in Morgantown. An employee at Mutts, who asked not to be named, says that the university has “taken care” of him. He declined to answer any questions about what phrase meant and when Mutts would officially be closing.
Some Sunnyside residents are also confused about what to do if there are problems on their property. Bolt says that the university will take care of any problems from this time forward.
“Whenever we find a problem, we respond in a quick manner and help fix the property,” he says.
However, when the fire alarm went off in Guest’s house, she says it took six phone calls to both the university and Morgantown police before someone told them what to do. Guest and her roommates have also not been able to pay their rent, because they still have not been notified of where to send it. But beyond that, Guest liked living in an older house and had hoped to stay there until she graduates next year.
They’re taking away a lot of history that I just don’t think should be touched,” she says.
Mike Stone, WVU Chief of Code Enforcement, believes this project will have a positive effect on Morgantown. “When you have these kinds of deals, where you take a run- down area and start a large scale build like this, you’ll notice that surrounding buildings in the community will change,” Stone says. “This project is going to better the community.”