Despite student outrage and a popular online petition, the University of South Carolina is set to abandon plans to build a parking garage near the school’s Greek village on Friday instead opting for a surface parking nearby.
Students of Greek houses with chapters in the village off Columbia's Blossom Street have been frustrated by a lack of parking and a rising parking fee, which started at $125 per semester in 2016 and hit $375 this fall.
Under the plan considered by a USC board committee, the fee would no longer be collected and the $7.5 million that has been raised would be used for the preparation of surface parking nearby.
More than 5,500 students signed an online petition objecting to the university’s decision to abandon the proposed garage for the village's 20 houses. Current students that have been involved with Greek life since the fees started have paid $1,500 each to date. Some have demanded partial refunds.
Mary Riolo, a recent graduate and member of Alpha Delta Pi, started the petition soon after she learned of the proposed change.
"I was like, 'I'm going to start a petition because I feel like more people are going to need to know about this, and more people are going to be upset about it.' And I wanted to really see the scope of the effect that it had on the community, students, alumni and parents alike," Riolo said.
The USC board's building and grounds committee first approved the concept on Sept. 13, according to university spokesman Jeff Stensland.
“Since then, because of some of the concerns raised in the Greek community, they wanted to come back to this, the buildings and grounds committee did, and create a little bit more certainty around exactly what that plan would look like,” Stensland said.
The plan would replace a parking garage that also would have included meeting space for Greek students. Parking is such a challenge in the area because members of those Greek houses are expected to show up at houses for meals during the day, creating a commuting challenge. More than 6,300 students — nearly one in four of all USC undergraduates — are members of fraternities and sororities.
USC Student Body President Luke Rankin Jr. predicted that the move, and the ending of the fee collection, would address many student concerns about parking.
“That’s great news,” Rankin said after the meeting. “In that part of campus, more parking is great parking.”
Under the plan heard Friday, about 500 spaces now used by commuting students would be moved onto what has been a recreational sports field nearby. The college hopes to have that change made by August 2020.
The university would look to relocate two other buildings and create a separate lot for 300 more spaces nearby. That part of the project is planned to be completed by January 2022.
When plans for the 1,200-space garage were announced in 2016, it came with the caveat that all members of a fraternity or sorority with a house on campus would pay a per-semester fee to be used to help pay construction costs.
State law mandates that tuition and state funds cannot be used to support parking operations, Stensland said. Therefore, new construction of parking services must be paid for with student fees.
The rising fee paid for parking had become a sore spot for students in the village’s fraternities and sororities. The parking fee had risen to exceed the membership cost for some Greek students, said Christen Piccioni, president of the College Panhellenic Association.
“We need parking now, and this fee has gone on too long and at too high a rate,” Piccioni said.
Stensland said part of the reason why the plan was changed is that surface lots are a more cost-effective option to the proposed $36 million garage. Stensland said the committee does not have a full breakdown of the project cost yet, but hopes it will be available before the next board meeting on Oct. 11.
Some current and former students did not like the way USC handled the parking fee.
"I really wish that the university would treat its students more like constituents rather than just like a money grab, in some ways, because they don't understand that while it may just be a couple hundred dollars for them, it is genuinely affecting the lives of their students," Riolo said.
Lexi Torrence, a fourth-year journalism student in Alpha Gamma Delta, said “It doesn't seem like a whole lot each semester. But when I added up, it was $1,500. That's most of my tuition for a semester with scholarships and everything. It just becomes a lot. It's way more than it should have been.
“People think that just because you're in Greek life you have all this money to spend and you’re so rich and this and that, but I pay my own dues. I work for it, and most of my friends do, too. We’re not like super rich kids."
Steven Carsch, a member of Phi Gamma Delta who graduated in 2018, agreed.
"Perhaps their calculus was that our parents or that our loans were taking care of the bills, and we may have been more predisposed to just paying it and not saying anything," Carsch said.
When the original plan was announced, Riolo said, it was presented as more than just a parking garage.
"We were paying into a garage that was really going to help our Greek community and the Greek village and they enticed us to pay this fee and kind of placated us by making it this grandiose idea of a garage with activity space. And it's going to be this great thing for the Greek community that's really going to get back. So even though we as students currently at the university would never see it ... we were going to be paying into it for the betterment of the community," Riolo said.
"At the time, what we told students was that this would be paying to make it more convenient for future Greeks, and that is still the same," Stensland said. "By being able to bring some additional parking next fall, we felt that it is able to satisfy some of the concerns that we've heard from the community."
The buildings committee and the full USC board need to take action at future meetings to go forward with this plan.
“I think we’re moving forward to the right solutions,” USC President Bob Caslen said.