May 5, 2009

University to close West Campus apartments

The University informed tenants it did not intend to renew leases on any of its five West Campus apartment buildings last month, citing the difficulties that will be created by increased construction activity on the new hospital pavilion slated for next year.

As compensation for the inconvenience, the University offered the students, faculty, and staff that live there one month of free rent, a $250 moving allowance, and free moving and packing materials. Undergraduate tenants, who will be taking final exams during the week before the leases expire on June 14, have the option of staying in their apartments until the end of June.

In a March 20 letter to tenants, property manager Marcus Mierle said that the noise, debris, dust, poor lighting, and construction vehicles would create safety issues and “diminish the quality of life” in the area.

“We just feel that it’s not appropriate to have people living in that environment,” Assistant Vice President for Real Estate Operations Ilene Jo Reizner said in a phone interview. All of the apartments are between East 56th and 57th Streets and between South Drexel and Maryland Avenues.

Reizner said that though some were frustrated at having to move farther from campus, most tenants were not surprised by the announcement.

“We had some concerns when we renewed [the leases], and we told the students at that time that there was a very good possibility that we would not be renewing the leases because the conditions in the area would change with construction, demolition, and preparations for buildings going up there,” she said.

But the University offered units in these buildings in January, after the discovery of a structural deficiency prompted the University to vacate a building at East 57th Street and South Drexel Avenue. A lottery for the remaining units in the West Campus properties was held to help students find new accommodations quickly. Though most students were aware of the University’s long term plans to use its land in the area for hospital expansion, some said there was no indication that those plans would take shape as early as next year.

Second-year Paul Riskus and his three roommates, who lived in the vacated building, landed two apartments in a building at East 57th Street and Maryland Avenue, but will now have to move for the second time this academic year. “If the hospital is doing a big project, they could have told us two months ago, instead of now that we’re already moved in. The University has really caused a lot of trouble with this apartment,” he said.

Riskus said the University should do more to compensate tenants, noting that the $250 moving allowance will not cover the move-in fee he is required to pay at the signing for an apartment leased by MAC Property Management, LLC, and that tenants will have to pay for any additional time they take in their apartments during June.

“I’m moving into a University apartment, I figure that because it’s University owned, I pay tuition, things are probably going to be better [I thought]; the University will take care of me. And that’s how it should be. That hasn’t been the case,” Riskus said. Riskus, with several other residents, met with Dean of Students Susan Art and has scheduled a meeting with the Director of Undergraduate Housing this week.

Third-year Michael Roytburd, president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fratnerity, whose lease won’t be renewed, said the fraternity has been in touch with the University about their future in their building at East 56th Street and Drexel Avenue since last year. “We knew the University had plans for the building and the entire block. We knew that was going to happen some time in the future. We knew we were on thin ice, in that sense,” he said.

The fraternity will be relocating to a newly rehabbed building south of the Midway next year, which Roytburd said they might have done regardless of the University’s actions.

While fourth-year Jessica Schwab said she is satisfied with the compensation she received for her lease, she has been frustrated that the University has not provided any relief from the demolition of the Medical Center parking garage, a month-long project that began on April 16.

“I hope they took the cost to students into account when they chose this demolition,” she said. Construction often begins before 8:00 a.m. six days a week, according to Schwab.

“It’s obnoxious in the sense that you can’t focus,” she said, noting that the noise and vibrations made it hard for her roommate to complete her B.A. thesis.

Elizabeth Lockwood, the project manager of the garage demolition, said that while the Medical Center tried to “minimize the impact on students,” the project has already been pushed back and could not be delayed further. Construction on the new hospital pavilion is slated to begin this summer, on the garage site.

Both Schwab and Riskus felt that the University put the hospital expansion above student interests. “The University doesn’t care as much about students as it should,” Riskus said. “They always say they want to make it the best academic environment that they can, but how can I concentrate when I don’t know where I’m going to live?”

Though Riskus noted the people he spoke with in the Real Estate office were helpful, he had higher expectations for compensation because the University was his landlord. “I feel like the University should go out of their way to do what they can for me,” Riskus said. “They make it seem like they’re doing us a favor,” he said.

Though Reizner noted that the decision not to renew leases was “not a student issue,” she said that the University has gone well beyond its obligation to ease the transition for residents. “We’re trying to be accommodating where we can. This is a respectful process. We’re trying to be respectful of people’s time, doing the extra bit to help them with peoples’ cash flow,” she said.

Though they will no longer serve as residential buildings, the University has not finalized plans for the area yet. Reizner said that plans for the sites are dependent on the rate of other construction projects, but should be finalized by the end of August.