Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

At Villanova, a full-court press to improve town-gown relations

In many ways, Villanova has served as a rallying place for the community, a spot where residents and students gather side-by-side to celebrate the men's basketball team, reigning national champions who started their season this week. But its success has also spawned some conflict.

Villanova University Wednesday October 31, 2018. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer .
Villanova University Wednesday October 31, 2018. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer .Read moreDAVID SWANSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Driving down Lancaster Avenue, it is hard not to notice what's happening at Villanova.

Not only did the university win two basketball national championships in three years, but applications have increased, fund-raising efforts have outpaced expectations, and the campus has expanded.

Two large complexes — a performing arts center and a 1,135-bed residence hall —  are under construction. The Finneran Pavilion, where the university's basketball teams play, reopened this fall after a $65 million renovation. A pedestrian bridge, which connects the main campus to new buildings, was built despite pushback against the large metal crosses that adorn it. Earlier this year, a fund-raising campaign surpassed its goal by more than $150 million, raising $759 million.

Now, university officials are trying to expand that success beyond campus.

In restaurants up and down the Main Line last week, from Wayne to Berwyn, Villanova students in Wildcats gear joined residents enjoying discounted meals and prix-fixe menus. Villanova Dines Out! Restaurant Week, launched in collaboration with the local business community, is one of several initiatives university officials have undertaken recently in an effort to become a better neighbor.

The private Catholic college sits in a unique position: smack dab in the middle of the Main Line, with off-campus student housing spanning multiple townships and often interspersed with single-family homes. That juxtaposition has at times led to an uneasy relationship with neighbors, and that's something the university would like to change.

In many ways, Villanova has served as a rallying place for the community, a spot where residents and students gather side-by-side to celebrate the men's basketball team, reigning national champions who started their season last week. Parishioners of St. Thomas of Villanova gather on campus for three Masses a week at the church in the heart of the university campus, an architectural beauty that towers over Lancaster Avenue. And it has invited Radnor residents to use the pool, gym, and other campus facilities for only $25 a year.

Despite that outreach and inclusion, the school and its growth have also spawned some conflict. Radnor Township commissioners and neighbors have taken the university to task over bright stadium lights that they say shine into residents' windows late at night. The township zoning board shot down the university's plans to install a seasonal dome over a turf field, a decision the university is appealing. And in September, the results of a town-gown survey revealed that students and residents held different views about the impact of students' partying, rowdiness, littering, and other offenses, as well as the town's general relationship with the university.

The survey, which was web-based and received anonymous responses from more than 100 students and more than 100 community members, captured a range of opinions. Some were negative, noting disruption caused by students and the university at large. Among them:

"I think the students are disrespectful and have no regard for the neighbors."

"I feel the community has given much more to the college than the college gives."

"Students need to become aware of the issues that they cause within the community," wrote one respondent identified as a student. "Additionally, the community needs to understand the nature of the town, the college campus atmosphere, and be more willing to collaborate with the university in order to meet an achieved goal, rather than simply demanding and asking for changes without being willing to make changes themselves."

Others offered positive thoughts, including:

"VU is a great part of this community and works hard to keep that relationship strong. Happy to have VU students roaming the streets of Bryn Mawr!!!"

"I believe Villanova tries its best to not intrude overall upon the community, and I believe the community could be more understanding of college culture, as I am sure many of them were college students themselves, considering the median salaries and home prices in this area."

Some respondents suggested more events at which students and neighbors could interact, and encouraged neighbors to introduce themselves to each other, especially if a family or young professional lives next door to a house of students.

University officials hope initiatives like Restaurant Week, with more than 40 participating restaurants, will help bridge the gap between residents and students. Top school administrators have gone out into the community and listened to concerns of residents and students. Recently, Laura Wagoner was hired to fill a new position, assistant director of government and community relations, to bolster town outreach. She and Chris Kovolski, assistant vice president for government relations and external affairs, have helped facilitate events, including a back-to-school barbecue, at which students were reminded that they live in a residential area where not everyone is between the ages of 18 and 22.

"It's an interesting conversation because the perspectives are broad on both sides," Kovolski said. "What we see, by and large, is that the community embraces the students. … What they don't embrace is some of the bad behavior they experience."

Some unruly behavior, of course, is par for the course in a college community. Sean Farhy, a Radnor Township commissioner who represents an area adjacent to campus, said students are generally respectful. Radnor Township Police Superintendent Christopher Flanagan agreed.

Senior Anthony Busa, student body president, said he stresses communication to his fellow students. Busa lives on a street in Wayne where eight of the houses are occupied by area college students and at least as many are occupied by couples or families.

"Communication is key," said Busa, 22, of Houston. "It's very difficult to be entirely upset when you know who you're living next to, as a person."

Most students who live off campus are seniors, Busa said, and they often move to towns like Conshohocken, Wayne, and Bryn Mawr, which traditionally has been home to the most popular college bars.

Christopher Todd, president of the Wayne Business Association and owner of Christopher's restaurant, said years ago more Villanova students would frequent bars and restaurants in Wayne. Perhaps employees were less vigilant about checking IDs then, he said, or the price point for restaurants in the Main Line town has increased and students can't afford to go unless their parents are visiting. During graduation, homecoming, and other events, the town fills up, he said.

Todd, a partner in Restaurant Week, said he would like to see the event expand and someday include other colleges.

"It's definitely a positive thing for the area," said Todd, adding that this event marks Wayne's first ever Restaurant Week. "It's great that Villanova really took the bull by the horns."

Busa said some of his friends planned to head to a different restaurant each night. And based on the number of Villanova lawn signs and flags he sees around town, he anticipates fans and neighbors will show up as well.

"I do really think Villanova benefits the community," Busa said. "The students bring so much to the area."

Bridie Dunn, 20, vice president of the university's student body, said: "There's just been a general excitement on campus. In terms of community engagement, Villanova's making a lot of strides they haven't before."

This story has been changed to reflect that St. Thomas of Villanova parish includes the church on the Villanova University campus.