As the University of Wyoming Housing Task Force works to decide the placement of more than $300 million worth of new dormitories, the challenge of not overcrowding students has become a chief concern among task force members.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, co-chairs the task force and said at the first meeting that UW shouldn’t “repeat the sins of the past” that placed the university’s students in buildings as tall as 12 stories along Grand Avenue.
Such a configuration only makes the transition to college more difficult for freshmen coming from rural areas of the state, UW Vice President for Student Affairs Sean Blackburn said.
“Our students come from populations of 5.8 people per square mile,” Blackburn said. “If you take UW’s students, benefitted staff and faculty, we would be the 7th largest city in Wyoming. That’s the environment many of our students to from many smaller towns.”
He noted that White Hall has a comparable population to Big Piney.
Blackburn is pushing for an approach with the new dorms that will create a “sense of place,” something he said Wyoming students have a particular affinity for.
He and other UW administrators want more “living-learning” style dorms, where students live with other students with similar academic programs. Blackburn is also asking for freshmen to be housed in “small scale communities of 20 to 30 aggregated into larger building.”
Based on the boundaries for new dorms outlined in 2019 legislation, UW could likely only keep the new dorms to fewer than five stories if UW were able to acquire the entire block to the northwest of Lewis and 14th streets.
UW owns most, but not all of the land, on that block.
Pete Gardiner, whose house lies on that block north of the College of Education building, has repeatedly said he will never sell his property to the university.
“Your facility lost the right to ever own my property, and your executives who come and go through the revolving door every two years have had 32 years to plan your campus expansion around the fact that you are not going to own my property,” Gardiner told trustees at their May meeting.
Explaining the “condescension and insults” some UW officials have targeted him with, Gardiner described a number of run-ins he’s had with UW officials since he bought his house in 1978. One involved two UW workers in 1987 spraying cottonwood trees in Gardiner’s front yard with pesticides without his knowledge or consent.
“Standing in my own front yard, my clothes, glasses, and camera were covered with what turned out to be the toxic chemical melathion,” Gardiner said. “There needs to be an entire restructuring of values at your outfit. For decades, UW has demonstrated through its actions an entirely flawed vision of society. A failed vision. An unsustainable vision. It is your people who matter, not buildings, not executive jets, and not power and prestige. If I had been treated better as a neighbor during the past 41 years, I could have donated my property to your facility.”
During last week’s task force meeting, Gardiner recounted UW’s acquisition of the properties on the site of the to-be-constructed Science Initiative building.
He said UW had seized a house at 9th and Bradley streets using eminent domain and warned against UW exercising eminent domain to acquire his own property.
“Is this the kind of cold, uncaring town that we want to have?” Gardiner asked rhetorically.
When UW was looking to acquire Lewis Street properties in 2014, university leaders at the time vowed that eminent domain was off the table.
“We’re never going to use eminent domain,” then UW Director of Government Relations Mike Massie told the Laramie Boomerang in 2014. “It’s always going to be willing-buyer, willing-seller. And so no one is going to force them off their property whatsoever.”
Mark Collins, who served as UW’s associate vice president of operations in 2014, said that “if any property owner is resistant to selling to the university, that is completely at their discretion and we respect that.”
Things have certainly changed since then, though UW spokesman Chad Baldwin told the Boomerang via email that Gardiner was wrong about a house being seized through eminent domain for the Science Initiative building.
“We were prepared to exercise eminent domain authority pursuant to Wyoming statute, but we were able to complete the sale without ‘taking’ any of the property north of Lewis Street,” Baldwin said. “The required notice by the statute was provided to the owners of property, but all property was purchased at a negotiated purchase price between UW and the owner. No condemnation or eminent domain action was filed.”
With Gardiner adamant that he’ll never sell to UW, it’s likely eminent domain would need to be exercised to acquire his land.
Baldwin wouldn’t say why UW has indicated there’s “potential” for the property to be acquired.
“We have no comment on (that) question at this point,” he said.
If Gardiner’s property wasn’t acquired, UW’s latest “massing studies” indicate most dorms would need to have five stories, with some dorms housing more than 500 students.
Hoping to reduce the crowding of dorms near the Union, the task force also took a tour of Cooper House last week; some task force members have expressed interest in demolishing the historic building and replacing it with a dorm building.
The architecturally unusual building, which exhibits a combination of Mission Revival and Pueblo Revival architecture, was built by an English aristocrat in 1919 and was later visited by Ernest Hemingway, according to UW.