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Originally published September 16, 2012 at 6:56 PM | Page modified October 16, 2012 at 12:33 PM

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University of Washington adds housing with big building boom

The UW is spending about $200 million to build new residence halls and apartments, with an eye to getting more students to live on campus.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Before last year, the newest residence hall on the University of Washington's main campus had opened when Richard Nixon was president and "American Pie" by Don McLean was one of the year's top radio hits.

Over the next 40 years, as the school's undergraduate population grew, space became increasingly tight in the dorms. Waiting lists grew longer. And even the newest hall, Mercer, began showing its age.

Now all that is changing.

The UW is in the midst of a $201 million residence-hall building boom that is remaking the southwest side of campus. The work is bringing thousands of new dorm-style rooms and apartments, a grocery store and a fitness center, and eventually even a 3/4-acre urban farm.

The UW has long had more students requesting campus housing than it had rooms to put them in. But instead of building more dorms, it let the private sector pick up the slack, with many students renting apartments or houses in and around the U District.

Recently, though, studies showed what administrators long suspected: There are academic and social benefits to living on campus, said Eric Godfrey, vice-president and vice-provost of student life. So in 2008, the UW launched a decadelong project to remodel and expand its housing. And if there's been a silver lining to the recession, it's that it's driven down the costs of construction.

A new hall, Poplar, and new apartment complex, Cedar, opened on the west side last year. Two more halls, Elm and Alder, will open this week on Northeast Campus Parkway. Combined, the four buildings can house more than 1,700 students.

Over the summer, the UW tore down the 60-year-old high-rise Lander Hall on Northeast Campus Parkway. Its twin, Terry Hall, is to be razed in February 2014.

Nearby, contractors are already halfway through construction on the university's largest residential project, Mercer Court Apartments, which will have room for more than 900 students on a site overlooking the University Bridge.

The new residence halls "are definitely very impressive," said Derrick De Vera, who starts his first year of law school this fall. Last year, De Vera lived in Cedar Apartments, which have private bedrooms and bathrooms, outdoor patios and even a full-size dishwasher.

Poplar, Alder and Elm have two- and three-bed dorm rooms, and each room has its own private bathroom. Alder has a medium-size grocery store on its ground floor that's open to the public, and Elm has a students-only fitness center.

For some neighbors, the new dorms are a mixed bag, said Matthew Fox, secretary of the University District Community Council and a co-chair of the City University Community Advisory Committee, an advisory group that reviews the UW's building plans.

Fox said that for many years, the community urged the UW to build more dorms. Neighbors were concerned that landlords had illegally subdivided houses to pack in more student renters, and that college-style partying brought a rowdy atmosphere to the neighborhood.

There was a demand for housing, and it was the UW's responsibility to meet it, Fox said.

But now, he and other neighbors aren't keen on the dark-gray exterior and industrial style of the new dorms. He thinks that Mercer Court Apartments, just east of the north end of the University Bridge, are out of scale, blocking views from the bridge.

More halls on the way

Every fall, the UW has scrambled to house students on campus, and some invariably have lost out.

Last year, about 7,000 students applied for 6,300 spots, said Pam Schreiber, director of UW Housing and Food Services. The UW doesn't require freshmen to live on campus, and when it has run out of room, it's turned double rooms into triples, and study rooms into bunk rooms.

Because the school relied for so many years on the private market to supply housing off campus, only about 18 percent of UW students live on campus today — far below the national rate among comparable universities of 25 percent.

In recent years, both in Seattle and nationally, college students have become more interested in living on campus, Godfrey said. And research showed students who live on campus are more involved in university activities outside class, and more successful and satisfied with their education.

When all the construction is complete in 2020, there will be a net gain of space for 2,200 more students.

Still to come: a new Lander Hall in 2014, a new Terry in 2015, and two more buildings: Maple, in 2015, and Madrona, in 2020. The UW's other residence halls, on the north side of campus, will be remodeled as well.

The UW wants to house all freshmen who want to live on campus, "and become a more attractive option for upper-division and graduate students," Godfrey said — hence the increase in apartments.

Doubles start at $5,300

The UW doesn't make money on student housing; the price charged per room covers the cost of the rooms, including paying off bonds issued to cover the expansion.

The least expensive double room now costs $5,300 for the nine-month academic year, a 37 percent increase since 2007, when the cost was $3,882. Double rooms in the new halls cost almost $8,000 (meal plans, which are required for most dorm residents, are an additional cost), and Cedar Hall studio apartments run about $12,500 for the year.

Even though the double rooms in the new halls cost almost 50 percent more than the least expensive doubles on campus, student demand for the new dorms is high. Twice as many students signed up to live in Elm as there are spaces to house them, Schreiber said.

Fox, the University Community Council representative and a UW alum himself — he once lived in Lander Hall — says he worries that the cost may be too much for some students.

But student Taran Dike, who is president of the UW's Residence Hall Student Association, says he's looked at housing costs at comparable schools, and "we're one of the lowest ones around." When utilities, Internet access and other expenses are taken into account, the university's housing is at or below the cost of a similar space off-campus, Schreiber said.

Construction costs for the new buildings have averaged $178 per square foot. According to the trade magazine College Planning & Management, that's slightly below the national median for a residence hall, which was $188 in 2011.

The University District will be transformed over the next decade by projects even bigger than the UW's residence-hall projects: A light-rail station is scheduled to open on Brooklyn Avenue in 2021, and several private developers are building, or planning to build, apartments geared toward university employees and other professionals, as well as students.

One of the goals of the UW project is to make the west campus a center of student life. In addition to adding the fitness center and grocery store, the UW opened a new eatery in Elm Hall called Cultivate that has the look and feel of a trendy restaurant.

And when Mercer Court Apartments open in 2013, the project will include 3/4 of an acre of courtyard space dedicated to growing food crops, run by the UW Urban Farm.

"We're really trying to create a village out here," Godfrey said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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