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Villanova is racking up wins on and off the court

An architectural rendering of the proposed performing arts center at Villanova University.
An architectural rendering of the proposed performing arts center at Villanova University.Read moreVillanova

For more than an hour last week, Radnor Township Commissioners engaged in a late-night debate over whether they could or should stop Villanova University from erecting 4-foot, 7-inch metal crosses atop stone pillars on either side of a new pedestrian bridge it is installing over Lancaster Avenue.

The proposal had drawn concern from some residents who disliked the idea of an overt show of religion so prominently visible over a state road in a township of many faiths. One commissioner suggested that the university make the crosses smaller. Another proposed approving the bridge with a statement that the commissioners were "neutral" on the religious icons.

After their solicitor advised that restricting the crosses without a "compelling governmental reason" would violate Villanova's religious freedom, the commissioners approved the project with no comment, meaning that the school can move forward with its plan to pay for and install the crosses on university property.

Score another victory for Villanova, which is enjoying quite a 175th anniversary year.

The Main Line university's 2016 national championship basketball team is having another stellar season. The Wildcats are ranked No. 2 in the country.

Applications for fall 2017 increased 22 percent on the heels of the basketball victory, the largest percentage jump in at least 30 years.

With more than a year to go, the university has exceeded its $600 million campaign fund-raising goal with 27 percent of alumni participating, up from 17 percent in 2009.

And a $285 million, four-year building blitz is underway, including a new performing arts center, six apartment-style residence halls to bring more students back on campus, and a 1,300-spot parking garage that opened in January.

That doesn't count the recently announced $60 million renovation of the Pavilion, Villanova's basketball arena erected in 1986, a year after the team's first national championship. Add that, and the construction budget grows to $345 million.

"It's just a new day, a quantum leap for Villanova," said Patrick Maggitti, Villanova's provost.

Founded by a group of Irish Augustinian priests in 1842, Villanova opened with just seven students, all housed in one building.

"Part of the richness of our story is it started as a school for immigrants, a place to educate Irish immigrant boys who were being denied an education in Philadelphia," said the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, president of Villanova.

The university today spans 260 acres, enrolls more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and includes business, law, nursing and engineering schools. Over the last few decades, the school has changed from a largely regional campus attracting students mostly from Pennsylvania and surrounding states to a university that brings in students from around the nation and world.

In 2011, Villanova announced its Lancaster Avenue expansion project on what was a 13-acre parking lot on the south side of the avenue. Villanova will add Gothic Cathedral-style residence halls with housing for 1,135 upperclassmen and a bistro, apparel shop and fitness center. Villanova currently guarantees housing for freshmen, sophomores and juniors, with a little more than 70 percent of students living on campus. When the project is done in 2019, that will grow to 85 percent.

"I made a promise that I would do something to bring more of our students back on campus," in part to ease community tension, Donohue said.

The plan also calls for a new performing arts center to rise near the new housing in 2020.

Some students said they had grown tired of disruption from construction, but they understood the need for it, even those who won't be around to benefit.

"Kind of frustrating," said Emily O'Toole, 22, a senior from Boston, standing near the residence hall construction site where work was underway. "But I think it will be worth it in the end."

Some Radnor residents aren't so accepting of the noise and dust, and concerns about traffic and lighting linger.

The township commissioners last week approved soil testing of the site to check for contaminants. Villanova had already conducted testing, but the commissioners said they wanted to be responsive to residents' desire for independent results.

"You may find nothing, but people will sleep better," resident Leslie Morgan told the commission.

Some residents defended Villanova's right to include the crosses at both ends of the 400-foot pedestrian bridge, to be completed in 2018.

"We have use of their gym, pool, track, theater, classes, lectures, arboretum and much more," resident Kristin Strid wrote. "These crosses, on their property, are a reminder for us to, yes, love God, but to also love thy neighbor as thyself."

Township commissioners said tensions between Villanova and residents are typical between colleges and their communities.

"You always have mixed reviews," said Commissioner Philip Ahr.

Donohue said Villanova has been sensitive toward neighbors.

"We need to work with them," he said. "But we also need to develop our property as well as they develop their property."

Villanova over the next five years also is eyeing renovation and expansion of its main administration and academic building, Tolentine Hall, as well as work on its science building and library.

But Donohue said that despite the application boom, there are no plans to grow the undergraduate student body, which has hovered at 6,300.

Villanova officials credit the NCAA title and resulting publicity and the school's recent reclassification from a master's to a doctoral university — which gave it a higher profile in U.S. News & World Report rankings — for part of the increase in applications.

"It definitely moved the needle," Maggitti said.

Villanova, where tuition, fees and room and board will near $65,000 next year, received 21,095 applications for fall 2017, up from 17,270 last year, said J. Leon Washington, dean of enrollment management.

Applications from international students more than doubled and for the first time applications also came in from such places as Alaska and South Dakota, he said.

Although many colleges are struggling to attract enough students as the pool of high school graduates shrinks, Villanova is poised to become more selective. Villanova accepted 43 percent of applicants last year; this year, the estimate is 38 percent to 40 percent, Washington said.

"We are in a parallel universe," Maggitti said. "We're fortunate with that."