Ababiy: University needs to focus on affordable housing, in advance of new development

Presented to the Board of Regents, the new Saint Paul Strategic Facilities Plan slates affordable Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative for redevelopment.

Jonathan Ababiy

At the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents meeting, University administrators presented their progress on the new Saint Paul Strategic Facilities Plan. The plan is bold and needed because as the administrators described themselves in the docket item, 59 percent of the campus’ space is in “poor or critical condition.”

This is the highest percentage of all University locations. Before the University drops the hundreds of millions it needs to revitalize the campus, it has attempted to sketch out a new, modern campus that balances its urban location, agricultural roots and research vision.

So far the plan is great. It puts forth a cohesive vision of a 21st-century campus on par with Minneapolis, but comes with one fatal flaw in its rush to revamp and refresh the St. Paul campus. It too easily ignores the important role the Commonwealth Terrace Cooperative plays on our campus in providing an affordable place for families and older University students to live.

As described in the board’s docket, the CTC area is “identified as an opportunity for major redevelopment given the condition and low-density pattern of the existing buildings.” The plan argues for a potential public-private partnership (P3) redeveloping the land Commonwealth Terrace occupies into a more dense, mixed-use community.

The P3 development is appealing because the University would save on costs. A private party would be building, financing and possibly managing the new development — potentially leaving the University with no new debt. However, as the New York Times described in a 2012 article on P3s, the savings aren’t always passed onto students. New P3 housing could come with better design and amenities than CTC, but it doesn’t guarantee the low rents that the current CTC population depends on.

According to Marquette Advisors, a real estate advisory firm, rent for a 3-bedroom unit in the Twin Cities’ metro area costs $1602 per month on average. In contrast, the co-op member rate at the CTC is $1203 per month. Nowhere else in the Twin Cities can match CTC’s low rents and convenient location.

Rent in the Twin Cities is on the rise, too. The same Marquette Advisors report notes that year over year, rent growth was just over 4 percent, while vacancies remain in the 2 percent range for all apartment styles. Our metro area’s rental market is harsh on students and their families.

Additionally, much of the popularity of CTC stems from the childcare facilities on site. The Community Child Care Center even offers a sliding scale for residents of the CTC. Though the Strategic Facilities Plan mentions keeping the child care facilities, University President Eric Kaler said at the meeting that the CTC redevelopment could include a hotel and possibly a pub, saying “that land absolutely is worth more than what it is being valued at right now.” All of these potential redevelopments could put the land to higher and more economically productive uses, but they forget the families and students who have made the CTC and our campus a thriving community.

Whether the University decides to keep the CTC in its final strategic plan or raze it to the ground, the University should not forget the students who live there. This potential redevelopment is very far off, but we, students and faculty, can still give our input on the new strategic plan. Affordability needs to be a top priority for administrators and planners. Before St. Paul gets a trendy hotel, pub stocked with expensive IPAs or a fancy shopping complex, it needs to make sure St. Paul remains an affordable place for older students and families.