Pamela Powers Hannley, a progressive voice for Arizona
The Arizona Daily Star’s banner headline on Sunday was “Luxury for students”. The article by Carli Broseau focused on a run-down (no pun intended) of the development that is in full swing or being planned in and around downtown Tucson and The University of Arizona.
For a few years now, UA officials have been predicting a stampede of future college students coming to Tucson. This rosy forecast has caused developers, restaurateurs, bar owners, and local politicians to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the mere thought of 1000s of frolicking students flooding downtown and 4th Ave., armed with Daddy’s credit cards. Regardless of political party, the Mayor and City Council members– eager to see downtown revitalization before their next elections– have vigorously promoted student housing as a panacea for what ails downtown.
Historically, The Tucson Progressive has been highly skeptical of this purported cure-all for Tucson’s sluggish economy– particularly in light of the high rental vacancy rate and the UA’s ever-increasing tuition. I have questioned the wisdom of knocking down historic homes and destroying our city’s character to speculatively build mini-dorms for future students. Republican and Democratic city officials alike told me not to worry; if we build it, they will come.
Brosseau’s article about speculative maxi-dorm development has moved me from skeptical to being scared. She details the astonishing amount of maxi-dorm development being planned or constructed in and around downtown; 2092 student housing “beds” — in three large developments– are under construction, with another three projects (consisting of 342 beds) poised to start soon. Just a year ago, the Arizona Daily Star reported that the new influx of students may result in an additional 1200 students living downtown. The District on 5th alone– that collection of ugly, giant boxes on 6th St, just off of 4th Ave– offers 756 “beds”. (Seriously, couldn’t they have hired an architect with some sensitivity to the historic character of the neighborhoods nearby?)
You’ll note the use of the term “beds” and not rooms or apartments. I foolishly thought that when UA officials and politicians talked about privately funded student housing development downtown they meant apartments— that could be rented by students or others wanting to live where the action is. But no. The District and other maxi-dorm developments are dormitories— not apartments. From the Star…
Student housing is different from traditional apartment living.
Students rent by the bed, not the unit, [I wonder what the square footage is?] and complexes have far more common space for amenities than would pencil out financially for an apartment complex.
The rooms typically are furnished, and each bed generally is paired with its own bathroom and shared space. Amenities like pools, fitness centers and study spaces are expected – the most valued extra, a 2009 University of Arizona market study found, is tanning beds.
After that study concluded that 2,000 to 5,000 more beds were needed, local developers and national powerhouses have rushed to put together deals. They’re motivated by typically higher profits than traditional apartment complexes, long-term population growth and student enrollment projections and the modern streetcar, now under construction, that will link the UA to downtown. [Emphasis added.]
In other words, if the students decide not to rent the bedroom/bath units in these complexes or if students don’t come here in the predicted droves, these buildings could have lots of empty bedrooms. No adult in their right mind would rent a bedroom downtown for the price of an apartment or small house elsewhere in the city ($350-1027/month). In fact, about 20 inches into Brosseau’s story, she quotes a 2009 UA market study that says close to half of the UA’s students don’t rent units in large complexes like the maxi-dorms. Imagine that.
To make the situation even more disturbing, Brosseau says that the UA is now “backing away from earlier enrollment projections of a 12.5 percent increase over the next five years.” Uh, oh.
Is downtown going to be dotted with hulking, empty dormitories… or worse… more dirt lots waiting for development?
Post script: I don’t mean to dis Broseau’s well-crafted and informative article, but wasn’t there any real news to print on the front page with a four-column, full-color photo and 80 point headline?