Student Housing 101

By Daniel Ginsberg-Jaeckle

The RiverView Residence Hall, a seven-story dormitory on North Avenue and Humboldt Boulevard, will usher in the new year of 2008 with the addition of nearly 500 UWM (University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee) students to the Riverwest neighborhood.

There already are quite a few off-campus student renters in the area. Simone Velasquez, a Riverwest resident and UWM history student, commented that he knows some classmates who are moving to Riverwest because of the less expensive rent. “Rent is considerably cheaper in Riverwest than it is on the east side,” he said. “That is why I live here. That’s why a lot of my friends don’t mind living here; [Riverwest] is not too far from campus.”

Indeed, UWM’s housing website describes the underconstruction dormitory as being a “20-25 minute walk” from campus – which is across the river and about a mile to the north.

UWM is growing quickly. Enrollment increased by over 2,600 students between 2001 and 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During that time it jumped from the 93rd-largest university in the country to 83rd. By the fall of 2006, over 28,300 students were enrolled at UWM.

That means more than 300 students per acre are packed into its urban campus, giving it by far the densest population in the entire Wisconsin state university system. As the university grows, so has tuition, slated to go up 6% for the next school year. This rising cost combined with the growing population can mean only one thing: the more affordable and close-by Riverwest neighborhood will be getting more UWM students, with or without the new dorm.

In the face of such a new neighborhood makeup, some Riverwest residents took note of a contentious public forum which took place on campus in late May. It was ostensibly about a revision to the state-wide university system’s charter, which would allow UW schools to discipline students for off- campus incidents. (Currently universities can only do so if such behavior affects another UW student or employee.) In fact, the three-hour meeting showcased, often in dramatic fashion, the growing acrimony between UWM students and East Side residents.

Over a dozen students, most of them with leadership positions in student government, voiced concerns about the more intrusive nature of the proposed disciplinary changes. The room was dominated, however, by local residents – who often seemed at wit’s end about increasingly violent student misbehavior – and the resultant flight of homeowning families, especially in the Murray Hill, Cambridge Woods and Mariners neighborhoods.

“Every now and then I’m at the point where it’s like ‘Let’s get out of here!’” exclaimed Don Kiniston, who has lived two blocks from campus for 30 years.

Third District Alderman Michael D’Amato, who lives less than a block from campus himself, was one of the first to speak. He began by piling up several stacks of documents, which he said were the result of “thousands of hours” spent by his office fielding complaints from nearby constituents. “I’m sorry,” he insisted to the panel of UW administrators running the hearing, “but I’m going to need more than three minutes.”

Nevertheless, once his time limit expired, the panel cut off his microphone and called the next speaker. He then approached the stage, wielding a map of recent noise complaints near campus, while students heckled him by saying, “You’re out of order!” and sympathetic residents heckled the panel by saying, “He’s our representative. Let him speak!”

Dozens more residents went on to testify – during their allocated three minutes – about fights in the streets, shootings, threats, rat infestation due to garbage left in the streets, and college-aged kids who enjoy jumping on cars. Many claimed the problem seemed to be growing in the last five years.

UWM Student Association President-elect Rob Grover acknowledged this problem between college-aged renters and other residents in the neighborhood. “The neighbors put too much blame on the students,” he argued. “We need to start a dialogue with the neighborhood, but [the neighborhood residents] are not coming half way.”

Supreme S. Allah also came to the Chapter 17 forum. Allah explained, from a UWM student and Riverwest resident perspective, that the University isn’t interested in slowing down growth, and warned of the “stealth privatization” of the university.

“Students are not going away,” Allah told the Currents after the forum. “[The UWM neighbors] pay a lot of money to have access to the urban city but they want it without the urban stuff.”

The RiverView dorms are not the first formal expansion of UWM’s boundaries. According to the housing page on the university’s website: “As the demand for on-campus housing has increased, UWM University Housing has begun to expand beyond the campus ‘footprint.’ RiverView is the second University Housing building to be constructed south of the main UWM campus.”

The first was the Kenilworth Square Apartments, a large 373-bed layout on the corner of Prospect and Farwell, which opened last fall. Those units are limited to students who are juniors, seniors, faculty, or over the age of 22, as part of a compromise the university reached with apprehensive neighbors in that area.

The Riverwest Currents conducted an anonymous survey of 13 businesses near the Kenilworth building. The anger level along the foot of North Avenue was nothing like it is in the East Side residential districts, but there were a few recurring complaints.

Six businesses complained of increased parking problems. A few complained of increased graffiti, destruction to property, and public intoxication. “I’ve stopped going into bars after work due to an increase in drunk students and much heavier smoke and younger customers,” wrote one survey respondent.

However, many compliments were also given to the students by business owners who appreciated their presence. “It’s a great neighborhood that needs to continue to grow,” one commented.

“The ones that don’t get drunk and rowdy are an asset to the community,” reasoned another respondent.

At least one respondent took umbrage that such questions were even being asked. “Students are generally a positive influence on this neighborhood,” the business owner wrote. “Judging from the questions, it would seem you are trying to put a negative slant on student activity. A more fair and balanced questionnaire would be appreciated. I am surprised by this negativity coming from your usually good publication.”

Unlike the Kenilworth dorms, the Riverview Residence Hall will accept first-year freshmen. According to the UWM office of student housing, the “ultimate goal” is to have it completely filled with first-year students.

At first glance, this might seem to indicate that Riverwest is more likely to experience the problems of the residential East Side, where underage drinkers at house parties often antagonize homeowners, instead of mirroring the more symbiotic addition of the Kenilworth building, full of bar-age academics, all just a stone’s throw from the busy North Avenue bar strip.

Although the construction of the dorms on the river bluff was a very divisive issue for the neighborhood, there are many Riverwesters who are now optimistic about the potential for synergy between students and the neighborhood. Lorraine Jacobs was one of a few Riverwesters at the contentious May forum. “We want to incorporate the energy and creativity into our neighborhood,” she hoped, before cautioning: “but it has to be a two-way street.”

Tim Vertz is on the Riverwest Neighborhood Association’s Public Safety Committee, and he sees the increased population on the river bluff as a good thing for the paths along the river banks. “With more people using them, they can only get safer for everyone,” he reasoned.

Nancy Centz, an active Riverwest resident since 1997, remains strictly positive about the change. “Most of these kids are nice, they shop, buy stuff, and help out at the [Riverwest] Co-op,” she said of the UWM students she already knows.

Adding that nobody reports what college kids contribute to Riverwest, Centz said she knows of college students who have physically cleaned up areas and often pick up trash. “We older people should be a better influence on the young people,” she encouraged. “We better work with our children because we’re leaving them this country,”

If Centz is right, Riverwest may be the perfect place for a UWM student to learn what a classroom cannot teach: how to be a good neighbor.

Editors’ Note: The author, Daniel Ginsberg-Jaeckle, is a UWM history major. He has lived in Riverwest since last summer.

Riverwest Currents online edition – July, 2007