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Back to School: UWM Students Make Riverwest Their Home

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Johanna Hoffman, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee senior majoring in social work, used to live on Oakland Ave. But three years ago, attracted by cheaper rent and the diversity of the area, she moved to Riverwest. Besides offering traditional student attractions like lower cost of living and easy access to UWM, Riverwest, she says, “is a pretty quiet area. Oakland was a lot noisier. I didn’t feel safe over there.” Hoffman is just one of the estimated 600 to 1,000 UWM students living in Riverwest. As UWM expands its outreach and enrollment, it has grown out of its on-campus housing, Sandburg dorms and Purin Hall. Meanwhile, as students migrate across the river, some have suggested Riverwest as a site for student housing. Ald. Mike D’Amato, who lives within a stone’s throw of the UWM student union and whose 3rd District is home to many UWM students, is particularly enthusiastic about alternative student housing in Riverwest. “Non-traditional housing reflects the neighborhood by spreading energy and vitality beyond the East Side,” D’Amato says. “UWM is behind the times…it needs to catch up and embrace the idea of student housing in a broad, city-wide way.” But with a history of well-publicized strife between students and their homeowner neighbors on the East Side, some worry whether these problems will carry over to Riverwest. Others doubt whether Riverwest is a feasible neighborhood for larger-scale student housing. When asked whether he would welcome a dorm in the neighborhood, resident Jeff Bartelt skeptically says, “Where would they put a dorm?” before adding that he would probably oppose concentrated student housing. One thing is certain — UWM cannot meet the demand for on-campus housing. In 2003, 26,000 students were enrolled in UWM, 23,000 of whom lived off-campus. In 2002-2003, UWM had 17,091 traditional students and 7,496 non-traditional (over age 24) students. The Sandburg dorms house 2,700, but nearly three times that many students are applying to live there. “It’s a definite problem,” says Scott Peak, director of housing at UWM. “Over the last eight to 10 years we’ve been seeing applications [to Sandburg] for housing skyrocket. We probably increased from 5,000 applications to 10,000 now.” D’Amato minces no words when taking UWM to task for the housing shortage: “The university…has shirked responsibility to provide an adequate housing plan and didn’t [foresee] growth for traditional students…it’s now scrambling to provide housing.” UWM’s administrators, however, insist that housing is high on the university’s priority list. Robert Greenstreet, dean of the School of Architecture and the City’s planning director, brings up the Kenilworth building and Columbia Hospital when asked about housing. The 500,000-square-foot Kenilworth building, between N. Farwell and N. Prospect Avenues, was approved for renovations in June. The building, now used by the university as a warehouse, would accommodate 300 to 500 students, says Greenstreet, and provide space for the Peck School of the Arts, classrooms, condos, retail, and parking. Renovations are expected to be completed in 2006. UWM is also considering the nearby Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital as housing space. The UWM website lists Columbia negotiations as part of the Six Year Project List, stating: “The possible acquisition of the Columbia facilities by the University represents a landmark opportunity for a major expansion to address deficiencies in on-campus housing and parking.” The website goes on to add, “A Feasibility Study is underway in 2004 to study and evaluate the possible benefits and implications…The 2004 predesign planning study will provide the foundation to proceed with the planning design phase in 2005-07 to be followed by acquisition and the construction remodeling phase in 2007-09.” Whether UWM will acquire the space is uncertain. “The University isn’t the only person on the block interested in Columbia,” says Brad Stratton of UWM University Relations, adding that housing is also a matter of budget constraints. “We’ve talked to D’Amato and a number of developers,” says Greenstreet. “Ideally, we’d like high quality, safe housing for students that we control.” Housing in Riverwest is a possibility, he says, although nothing is in the works right now. “We’re thinking about all possibilities.” UWM, which has 18 PhD programs, is skewed toward an older population, says Brian Schermer, a UWM architecture professor. In 2001, Schermer led a class in conducting a study on non-traditional student housing, including apartments for graduate students and single parents in Riverwest. Besides Purin Hall, which houses 50 students in shared apartments, the university doesn’t offer many housing options for older students. “It’s a demographic that is not that much served,” he says. “We were really looking at a situation that could accommodate families.” In the spring of 2002, UWM presented the study to the Board of Regents. “The regents saw it as the UWM campus of the future and part of a larger vision of what the campus could be. But are there immediate steps [to build housing]? No,” says Schermer. Although the university has considered alternative housing, including converting a downtown hotel into a dorm, most students who apply to Sandburg want to stay on campus, says Peak. “Our problem is basically this: these are freshmen. And they want to stay right here,” he says. “The more we look at what the price would be, what our demographics are, the primary focus of our interest is freshmen. And so our options are somewhat limited.” Students in Riverwest But even if student housing in Riverwest were feasible, would Riverwest residents welcome more students to the neighborhood? Bartelt, a longtime Riverwest resident, lives next door to a student house. He has been frequently woken up by student partying and noise during the night, he says, and was physically threatened when he tried to talk to his neighbors. Only repeated calls to the police and the landlord solved the problem. Concentrated student housing would inevitably lead to trouble, Bartelt fears. “I’ve yet to see where you put a bunch students in a house and don’t have that.” Still, Bartelt says he would welcome conscientious students to the neighborhood: “I’m open to anybody who’s responsible,” he says. Students who do live in Riverwest cite cheap rent, easy access to campus, diversity of the residents, and the overall student-friendly atmosphere of the area as their reason for settling on this side of the river. “I like that I don’t have to leave [Riverwest] much to get groceries or get to school. I have a car and barely use it,” says UWM senior Gib Caldwell. Small hubs of student housing are key to preventing East Side problems like loud parties, says D’Amato. “Small volumes [of students] can be addressed,” D’Amato says. “The problem on the East Side is that student housing is heavily concentrated in one area.” Although D’Amato has issued no formal proposals, he suggests the corner of North and Holton streets as a possible housing site. “Residents would embrace diversity of student life here,” he says, “If you integrate students into the community, that doesn’t change the community.” But some residents, including students, have mixed feelings about more student housing in the neighborhood. The idea of organized dorms “doesn’t fit well,” says Caldwell. “Dorms feel like high school,” he adds. “In the first couple years students aren’t as mature.” Joe Riepenhoff, a UWM junior, says the biggest reason for his move to Riverwest was the “sense of community.” On the East Side, where he used to live, residents don’t have the same camaraderie, he says. In Riverwest, “we are here for a common purpose…If you shove a bunch of students here you’ll have the same problems.” On the other hand, some students are reluctant to live in Riverwest because they see it as a dangerous area. UWM junior Rhiannon Clouse and her husband Clay moved to Riverwest because of cheap rent and proximity to campus. “It’s easier to make ends meet and the rent isn’t outrageous,” she says. However, the couple, who have a young daughter, are soon moving out. “It’s not the type of neighborhood I want my daughter growing up in,” she says, mentioning vandalism and partying. “There seems to be a lot of crime activity going on.” Robert Szymanski, who has lived in Riverwest for 25 years, says, “It’s a more rare student who can adapt to this neighborhood.” Students, if they are well behaved, can be wonderful, he says, but “kids 18 to 24 — living in a house is license for them to behave in less than adult ways.” On the East Side, the Student Neighborhood Association introduced a “Block Captain” program, to be started this fall, to settle disputes between residents and students. A similar solution might work in this neighborhood, says Brett Belden, one of the chairs of the association and a supporter of student housing in Riverwest. Still, “there is going to inevitable conflict,” says Szymanksi. “It is not the neighborhood’s responsibility to adapt to students,” he adds. “It’s the student’s responsibility to adapt to the neighborhood.”
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