From Kurt Lohide
WSU Vice President of Finance and Administrative Services
What’s up with the Winona State University Theme Houses?
Questions and concerns are raised any time there is a change in the complex relationship between WSU and our neighbors. To facilitate understanding of the proposed Theme House concept, I’ll review some aspects of the broader context of student recruiting and community zoning.
To remain viable WSU must accommodate evolving regional demographics and student trends. The pool of graduating high school seniors in our region is shrinking. There’s also evidence that an increasing number of our students want to live on campus. Unless we can offer what our potential students want in a college education, they will go elsewhere. A decline in the number of overall Winona State students would hurt both the university and the community.
WSU wants to be a good neighbor. We listen closely when neighbors speak, and we’ve heard their request to develop more student housing to relieve crowded conditions in the surrounding neighborhoods. This same recommendation was repeated by the recent 30 percent task force, which asked the city to send a strong signal to the university to increase the percentage of WSU students living in university housing.
The needs of our students and our neighbors played prominently in the 2010 Winona State facilities master plan. The plan was developed in an open and collaborative process over the course of a year, during which we met frequently with the Winona City Center Neighborhood Association, representatives from the west campus neighborhood, the Winona Housing Association, city planners and campus constituency groups.
The plan includes a goal to increase the percentage of students living in university housing over the next 50 years—from the current 38 percent up to 50 percent. This isn’t an increase in the overall enrollment of WSU students, just a change in the percentage of students living in university housing. The majority of the proposed increase—approximately 1,200 beds—will be achieved through adding and renovating traditional on-campus student residence halls.
Theme Houses will be a very small subset of the overall increase in student housing. The exact number will depend on the availability and acquisition of revenue bonding authority, but it’s safe to say the number would be less than 10—spread out over many years.
Theme Houses are an innovative idea increasingly popular on campuses across the nation. They promote a positive learning environment by grouping together 10 to 12 students who share a common set of academic interests. They’re not social groups like fraternities or sororities.
We believe these Theme Houses will improve the neighborhoods surrounding campus. WSU will acquire existing dilapidated student rental properties in a narrowly defined zone adjacent to the main campus. The properties would be renovated or rebuilt in a manner architecturally compatible with the existing neighborhood.
The houses would be subject to the full array of standards enforced on all university-owned or operated buildings. In addition, WSU welcomes the once-every-five-year city inspection. Each Theme House would also have a resident assistant living on the premises to enforce conduct standards such as a prohibition against alcohol and drug use and enforcement of parking regulations.
In the course of discussions with city planners concerning the Theme House concept, we discovered WSU is not differentiated from the R-2 designation that surrounds the campus. To address this inconsistency city planners have recommended an overlay that would recognize the university as an entity different from privately owned property.
The overlay does not relieve WSU from the requirement to acquire only existing rental properties for Theme Houses nor the need to obtain a conditional use permit for any variance to the 30 percent rule.
WSU believes building a small number of Theme Houses over the next fifty years in a limited area adjacent to campus is good for the continued success of the university and also will help make the local neighborhoods more attractive and livable. Anyone interested in a more in-depth look at the Theme Houses or any other aspect of WSU future plans can find our campus master plan at http://www.winona.edu/facilities.