Planning for Campus Housing

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The conversion of Court 17 to an on-campus residence hall was approached through careful planning and analysis.

(An aerial view of the UW Tacoma campus, above, shows Court 17 and the neighboring University Y Student Center squarely in the middle of the northern edge of campus.)

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Signing the closing paperwork to complete the purchase of Court 17 is a significant milestone. But it’s neither a beginning nor an ending. There is a lot of thought and planning going back to 2007 and even earlier that leads up to the purchase, and there is a multitude of future plans that are triggered by the transaction.

Origins

Way back when UW Tacoma was founded 26 years ago—that first year’s enrollment was 176—administrators envisioned a day in the future when there would be enough students that campus housing would be economically feasible. It would be a number of years before detailed planning was necessary, or even appropriate, but it was something that was foreseen from the very beginning.

In 2006, the state legislature authorized the five “branch” campuses of UW and WSU to transition to four-year institutions, enrolling freshmen and sophomores, from their status at that time as upper-division only. That fall, UW Tacoma welcomed its first group of lower-division students, and detailed planning for some kind of on-campus housing commenced.

Several threads came together at once: the campus needed parking, the City of Tacoma and the university wanted more downtown housing, and, in those pre-Great-Recession days, investors were looking for projects.

UW Tacoma's Court 17 under construction in 2006.What emerged was a plan for UW Tacoma to build a parking garage on land already owned by the university, and lease the air-rights to develop the space above the garage to a private developer who would build housing. Recognizing the economic development benefits that would accrue, the City of Tacoma lent the university $1 million. With the proceeds of some bond sales by UW (guaranteed by future parking revenues) and some reserve funds, the parking garage would be built to serve as the “podium” on which Lorig Associates would build 128 units of studios and 1- and 2-bedrooms.

Incremental Expansion

Initially, Lorig rented most of the units at private-market rates to residents—some who happened to be students, faculty and staff, but most who were not specifically connected to UW Tacoma and just wanted to live downtown. Toward the end of the aughts, responding to student requests, the campus started thinking seriously about student housing. Lorig leased a handful of units directly to UW Tacoma, which then sublet them to students, and thus was born the first intentional 24/7 student learning community on the UW Tacoma campus.

This was possible because UW Tacoma negotiated a master lease agreement with Lorig, allowing an incremental expansion of the campus’s housing component as student enrollments grew, and giving UW Tacoma the right to purchase the entire complex when student housing demand warranted. “It was great for Lorig and great for us, being able to provide a 24/7 community with a university-focused atmosphere to our students at a pace and cost appropriate as we grew,” said Paul Weed, associate director of finance at UW Tacoma.

Each subsequent year, UW Tacoma expanded the number of units it leased from Lorig—from the initial four, to half a floor, then a full floor. By 2015, UW Tacoma was leasing two floors of units from Lorig.

“At that scale, we knew we were approaching a tipping point, where the best return on investment for students would come from owning our housing, rather than leasing it,” said Weed. “But we needed to figure out exactly where that point was, and we needed to understand the market for student housing better.”

Market Analysis

UW hired a firm called Brailsford & Dunlavey, which has consulted on student housing projects at universities across the nation.

Recognizing budding talent right here on campus, planners also engaged the services of students majoring in GIS (geographic information science, which underlies geographic information systems) and geospatial technologies from the Urban Studies Program. These students worked with campus staff to look at where UW Tacoma students were living when they applied to UW Tacoma, and then looked again at where those students were living once they were enrolled.

“To our surprise,” said Weed, “we found that more than 1,200 students moved upon enrollment an average of 33 miles. Students are moving closer, and they are moving within a five-mile radius of campus.”

Planners also surveyed students, asking them what their interest level was in campus housing and what kind of housing would be attractive. “The results of the survey told us there was an unmet demand for campus housing of more than 1,200 beds. So now we had some idea of what the market would support,” said Weed.

Making the Business Case

Working with another consultant, Kinzer Partners, planners reviewed all the possible options: building from scratch, continuing the public-private partnership master lease approach, and other variations. “Ultimately, the best return on investment was indeed found to be purchasing the Court 17 building,” said Weed.

Armed with the market analysis, financial pro formas and a letter of intent from Lorig, UW finance and real estate personnel from Tacoma and Seattle brought their business case before the UW Board of Regents, which approved the purchase. The final deal was $22.28-million, $20-million to purchase the housing units and the rest to cover furniture and improvements, and financing.

“UW Tacoma really benefits being part of the large University of Washington,” said Weed, “because we can take advantage of UW’s ability to internally finance projects through the Treasury Office, which lowers our overall cost of capital for of doing projects like this.” The purchase of Court 17 is being financed by UW, guaranteed by the flow of student housing payments over the years, plus some funds from UW Tacoma reserves.

The Future

Ed Mirecki, UW Tacoma Dean of Student Engagement, emphasizes that Court 17 is more than just an apartment building. “Adding this residence hall to our campus has an impact on our entire student engagement strategy and services, on all of the programs and services across campus.” he said.

“Part of being a residence hall, and part of what students are paying for, is a larger kind of support network. There’s a lot more to a campus housing experience than rent and utilities, including resources to help students be successful and transition to living away from home,” said Mirecki.

For example, there may be more students wanting to use services like the Library and the Teaching & Learning Center later in the evening and on weekends, which may trigger a review of the operating hours of those facilities.

Another area that will be revamped is campus dining. In the short term, a new café/food market is being built at Court 17. “We expect that to open towards the end of fall quarter,” said Mirecki. Other things being looked at include adding a meal-plan service to the Husky Card: students could pay discounted rates for food at the retail food outlets along Pacific Avenue or at one or more grocery stores.

Will there be more on-campus housing beyond Court 17? This is something the campus’s planning staff is evaluating carefully. The data gathered by Brailsford & Dunlavey suggests there is demand for on-campus housing beyond that being filled by Court 17. “We’re looking into the market for building more housing now,” said Paul Weed.

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Written by: 
John Burkhardt / September 23, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu