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Student housing keeps coming to Columbia but fears mount about overbuilding

The Nine, Columbia

Work is underway in Columbia's Vista district for more student housing at a project called The Nine @ Columbia. Mike Fitts/Staff. 

COLUMBIA — More than 3,000 additional student beds in private dormitories are coming to Columbia, where numerous new student complexes already have changed the flavor of the city.

But, for some, enough is enough.

"I think we are past the saturation point," Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall said. "I think we have overbuilt for student housing."

Duvall fears the city soon will have too many beds for students. The neighborhood near campus where Duvall lives, University Hill, is striving to block a new eight-story complex with more than 500 beds that would be built nearby. The structure does not fit the neighborhood and violates standards for the area because it is too tall.

Residents and businesses in Columbia's Vista neighborhood objected to a separate student development that is underway there now, but it will house a smaller number of students than originally proposed, Duvall said. 

Duvall worries that, as newer private dorms acquire residents from other complexes, the city will struggle to find new uses for the structures that fall out of favor, because of the designs, which frequently have four bedrooms sharing one common area.

"These buildings will be hard to repurpose to other things because of their design," Duvall said.

Even as new projects are debated, the surge of enrollment that has fueled the student housing boom is not set in stone to continue, according to a university spokesman.

USC has been growing significantly, with enrollment rising on the Columbia campus to 35,364 in the past fall, up 7 percent over the past five years and 24 percent since 2009.

USC spokesman Jeff Stensland cautions, however, that with new university President Bob Caslen in place, policies such as enrollment trends are up for review.

In August, Caslen succeeded Harris Pastides, who had overseen the major growth of enrollment and the expansion of the campus into Columbia's riverside Vista district. 

Caslen's broad review of plans and policies at USC includes managing enrollment, which means a different direction is possible, Stensland said. 

For now, the university is adding to its own dorms. It would add 1,800 beds in four new dormitories to its south campus, with opening planned for the fall 2022 semester. USC required 255 freshmen to leave dorms in the that area in the middle of this school year to make room for the new construction.

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The university, which requires freshmen to live in on-campus dorms, continues to have more requests for student housing than it can fulfill, Stensland said. USC currently has 635 overflow students living in Park Place, a private dormitory, while also receiving traditional support such as resident advisers, he said.

USC also has about 2,400 students who are on a backlist for USC residences, including many sophomores, Stensland said. They likely have found other accommodations that are not so close to campus.

While the pent-up demand seems large, so too is the inventory of new rooms that is set to rise from the ground.

A 16-story structure called The Edge, approved for downtown, will offer 679 beds. Construction is expected to begin this fall.

The Vista neighborhood project called The Nine @ Columbia will feature 486 beds when it opens in 2021, according to the website of the developer, 908 Group. In the vicinity of Williams-Brice Stadium, Reign Living At The Stadium will offer 504 beds and is expected to be open by this fall, according to the website of developer Reger Holdings.

Overall, more than 3,000 new rooms for students have been approved or are under construction in Columbia, according to an analysis by The Post and Courier.

The apartment proposal that Duvall and his neighbors object to will be reconsidered in March after the plan for student housing on Gervais Street near the campus was rejected initially by the city's Design/Development Review Commission, which rescinded its action on Friday. Trinitas Ventures is seeking to construct space for about 540 beds.

All this tower construction has not changed the market much for the classic off-campus housing in the neighborhoods, according to some veteran rental property managers.

"The change we are seeing is a lot more demand," said Chris Twitty, president of property management company The Shandon Group. Despite the fancy amenities such as pools and exercise rooms in the new student towers, there still are students who want to get out on their own and have the privacy and space of a house, Twitty said. 

Other observers believe those nearby neighborhoods are home to fewer students than they used to be. The new towers have reduced the student demand for off-campus housing in neighborhoods. There is less demand in the downtown market for the older, less-renovated properties that traditionally have been student housing, according to Chris Turner, owner of Turner Properties. "There definitely has been an impact," Turner said.

A representative of a nearby neighborhood said he, too, sees a difference, with less student activity on the streets of the Shandon neighborhood near USC. State Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, said that despite the rise in USC's enrollment, there seems to be less of a student feel to the nearby neighborhoods where he lived for years.

Columbia could use more housing for young adults and those starting a family since so much development lately has been focused on college students, Rose said. 

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