Villanova University has launched a $200-million-plus building project that will transform two parking lots on Lancaster Avenue into a Gothic "gateway" to campus and include two residence halls, a parking garage, and a performing-arts center.
"It takes these nondescript ugly parking lots that scream commuter school and transforms the university into what it is, a first-class educational institution," said Ken Valosky, vice president of administration and finance, who is in charge of the project.
The chief goal of the plan - which is to be presented to the Radnor Township Board of Supervisors next Monday - is to create more on-campus housing for students, many of whom live in surrounding Main Line towns and often annoy residents with their antics. Just last weekend, Lower Merion police cited eight Villanova students for, among other things, underage drinking, disorderly conduct, and public drunkenness.
Currently, the Catholic university guarantees housing for 4,400 freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, with about 2,000 students living off-campus. The new apartment-style dorms will bring about 1,100 of them back onto campus.
The plan, Valosky said, was not a prelude to increasing enrollment.
"That would defeat the whole purpose of this undertaking," he said.
The project was driven by demands from students and their parents for more university housing, he said. But the school was also "sensitive to the impact of having young college-age students living in neighborhoods."
One area that feels "the impact" is central Bryn Mawr, where bars, burger joints, and a hookah bar on Lancaster Avenue are magnets for the young. Police regularly cite students for drinking violations, noise, and public urination in the early-morning hours when they spill out of the bars and wander through the quiet streets on their way home.
"Some students hurt the quality of life in those neighborhoods," said V. Scott Zelov, a Lower Merion Township commissioner, who applauded the new construction.
"If more lived on campus, they would be headed in that direction as opposed to walking through the neighborhoods" when the bars close, he said.
But the construction project is more than a way to corral fun-loving students.
Across the country, aging facilities, economic pressures, technology, and changing student demographics are driving campus building projects. In the last few years, St. Joseph's, Temple, and Drexel Universities have all expanded or pumped up their facilities with eye-popping science, arts, and sports centers, and amenity-loaded dorms.
Students increasingly want top-notch facilities, from state-of-the-art research labs to Olympic-quality gymnasiums.
"You better have the right facilities, and they better be in good shape, or you will not be able to compete to get the best and the brightest students," said E. Lander Medlin, executive vice president of the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers.
More local expansion projects in the works include: Temple's plans to spend $1.2 billion to enlarge its main campus along the Broad Street corridor, including a 1,500-bed residence hall, a new architecture building, and a science education and research building.
Drexel University, in partnership with a Texas-based student-housing developer, announced plans this week for a $97 million expansion along Chestnut Street, between 32d and 33d Streets. It will add more than 800 student beds to the university, in addition to stores and restaurants. Groundbreaking is scheduled for later this month.
The university also has plans to add several other student housing/retail buildings over the next five years, looking to double its current capacity of more than 4,000 beds.
Since 2008, St. Joe's has spent $129 million to buy the 38-acre Episcopal Academy property across City Avenue, increasing its footprint 60 percent; renovate its field house; and build a five-story parking and retail facility and an academic center. A new 412-bed freshman residence hall will open in the fall.
Villanova this year reconfigured its core campus north of Lancaster Avenue to eliminate cars and spruce up dining halls and outdoor areas.
The latest project calls for some stores and a bistro on the first floor of the midrise residence halls, but Valosky said those would be restricted to students, staff, and alumni.
"We're not looking at franchise retail. We're not looking for this to become a destination. We don't want traffic descending on campus," he said.
The dorms, which would be built on the larger of the two parking lots that straddle Ithan Avenue, would have the same gray stone Gothic architecture as the rest of the campus. The school already has 25 residence halls, ranging in age from 15 to 60 years.
Besides suites, the halls would feature gyms, conference rooms, a courtyard, and an arch connecting the two buildings.
The performing-arts center would be on the other side of Ithan Avenue, with the parking garage behind it.
Valosky said the college was sensitive to the project's effect on the surrounding community and had met with neighbors to discuss the plans.
"If we have the ability to reduce our students' presence [in the community] by half, it removes the students and their vehicles and brings them back onto the campus," he said. "If we can have a project that increases the satisfaction of our students, looks beautiful as a new gateway to the campus, and helps with relations with the township, that's going to be a win for everyone."