Legislation that will begin the building of new residence halls at the University of Wyoming cleared the state House of Representatives this week. Despite the concerns of certain lawmakers, House Bill 293’s supporters — including House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, and Senate President Drew Perkins, R-Casper —have considerable influence, and will probably be able to successfully usher the measure to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.
There’s no doubt the project will come with significant and lasting changes for our community. Change on this scale is never palatable to everyone, and we’ve seen a variety of valid concerns come from Laramie and Albany County residents. The notion new facilities are needed isn’t without merit. But for this project to move forward, it’s critical the housing plan’s proponents be cautious of the political capital they’re spending on the local and state level. Additionally, we urge UW’s board of trustees to move forward cautiously and thoughtfully before going all-in on new facilities.
On the local level, it’s important the university be good residents and always earnestly listen and consider concerns from its neighbors. We applaud House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly for her amendment mandating a Laramie representative be appointed by the mayor to the housing task force established after the bill becomes law. It’s frankly stunning this wasn’t a part of the bill from the start (local residents were excluded from the legislative task force last year) but we’re glad our local leader represented the city well.
Old fears were resurrected recently regarding $3.5 million in the bill meant to mitigate interferences with traffic related to construction on 15th Street as some thought it could be the start of a slow-walk to closing large portions of the roadway. When this proposal came up in past years, Laramie residents were very clear it was not desirable, and it’s unlikely that’s changed. While it doesn't seem onerous to access the Arena Auditorium, the Buchanan Center, the Visual Arts building and the Centennial Complex — locations the public frequently visits — from 22nd Street if you live east of 15th Street, it would be for those living west of 15th Street. The plan’s proponents say closing portions of 15th Street to motor vehicle traffic isn’t the bill’s intent, but why then wouldn’t the House support Rep. Landon Brown’s amendment to take the possibility off the table by law? Closing portions of 15th Street would be a gesture of ill-will Laramie residents won’t forgive or forget. The state Senate should pass an amendment to the same end as Brown’s proposal, or the trustees should be good neighbors and commit to not doing this should the legislation pass. (The former is preferable.)
The question of where the students living in the new residence halls will park is also to be addressed by the trustees. The possibility of a parking garage is designated in the bill. Whatever options are considered, they must be implemented in a way that doesn’t cause traffic issues at peak times. Making sure infrastructure will be in place to mitigate any traffic issues associated with a large parking garage would go a long way in ensuring local residents won’t feel walked on by the university.
UW’s long-range view for dorm construction includes a “Phase 2” that envisions an on-campus “Sophomore Village.” There’s also a valid concern that the local economy could be harmed by instituting a policy requiring students to live in the dorms for two years instead of one. Local properties will be left vacant and businesses that depend on students will lose out on a year of potential patronage as they use services on campus. And no matter how nice the new dorms would be, UW officials must accept that 18-20-year olds don’t want to live on campus any longer than they have to. That requirement could hurt recruitment, contrary to the intended purpose of building new facilities. We know that’s the direction other universities are going, but it would make more sense to keep UW appealing to young students looking to find off-campus housing while also supporting our local economy.
These aren’t the only matters that local residents will feel strongly about. It will be critical to maintain goodwill between the city and university, not just to make locals feel they’re heard, but also so UW can have the city on its side when it considers ambitious construction projects that will forever alter Laramie in the future. Moves that will make residents feel skeptical about whether UW cares about their concerns would make it more difficult to think big down the road.
It costs UW a great deal of political currency in the Legislature anytime expensive construction projects call on lawmakers to act. Even though the appropriations in the bill aren’t outright expenditures — the state will actually come out ahead in the long-run — you’ll still see legislators grumble about their passing the bill for years to come. This feeling among lawmakers will cost UW because senators and representatives will be less than anxious to grant appropriations for building projects in the near future, regardless of any particular need’s urgency.
With that in mind, we hope the project is kept sensible. Many competing universities are setting high bars with amenities in student housing, but that’s not what UW prospects are necessarily looking for in Laramie. Potential recruits are attracted to UW in large part because the price is right. It’s not to say corners should be cut or we should aim to have depressing facilities with an institutional feel to save a buck; it’s just to say that UW shouldn’t strive to offer all the same things in housing as competing universities when we have great academic programs at a low cost. UW should also look at the existing privately-built residential complexes in town marketed to students which, while offering some of the same private room/common area arrangement and amenities UW seems to feel are necessary to provide, are not fully occupied. Is there an economic lesson to be learned from these developers? Do they really represent what the students of today and the next 15 years really want in housing?
The fact is we just don’t know what exactly students will want. Decision-makers therefore shouldn’t be too anxious to demolish all of the existing residence halls and build all of the prescribed new dorms. Hill and Crane halls should certainly go, but it’s possible some students coming to UW — again, many because of the low cost — will want a thrifty option for housing that could be offered with renovated iterations of the existing halls. That way there would also be time for a reassessment of what students really want before completing all the demolition and construction. There will be quantitative and qualitative data to examine as to whether more students want a stripped down, lower cost option, or whether they truly want to pay more for brand new facilities with fantastic amenities. The plan now calls for demolishing all but one of the existing residence halls; maybe they should consider holding on to two.
It’s certainly not our intention to jump on the bandwagon of the most alarmist in the community. If the bill passes, great. We just hope university officials and legislators move forward thoughtfully.