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Cutting the commute

USF invites students to call campus home in the coming years. Observers predict a livelier college and downtown.

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Rose Sinclair, 20, attends USF St. Petersburg and lives with her parents. The nursing student would like to live on campus.

By SHARON L. BOND, Neighborhood Times Business Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- The University of South Florida St. Petersburg will house students on campus, first by leasing space in existing apartments, then by building dormitories to house nearly 500 students within a few years.

A vote of the campus board made the move official last week. The development, which takes effect in the fall of 2003, will change the look and feel of the small campus and intensify its impact on downtown.

"Basically all of downtown will become a 24-hour community," said Don Shea, executive vice president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Development Partnership. "I think there will be more nightspots, restaurants, coffeehouses and bookstores."

Student housing is "going to be a big impact, and it's going to be positive."

The university need for housing comes with its transformation into a four-year school. It began admitting freshmen and sophomores several years ago.

"If we had 120 beds, we could fill those with the students already here," said Stephen Ritch, associate vice president for student affairs.

Mayor Rick Baker is excited about the prospects.

"Any time you have new residential components, which we are adding by the truckload these days, it will bring people into the shops and restaurants and what we have downtown."

Baker said downtown facilities such as the museums could provide students with places for internships. He is not concerned that the new element coming downtown is made up of college students who have a reputation -- deserved or not -- for partying long and hard and disrupting the lives of others. Neither is Shea.

The number of residents for 2003 will range between 40 and 120, probably closer to 40, according to Ritch. They will live in space leased by the university from nearby apartments.

By the fall of 2004, the university plans to have built on campus a 240-bed building with four-bedroom single apartments and two-bedroom double suites, an $8.8-million project. Two years later, another 240-bed facility aimed at freshmen and sophomores is planned. It would be called a living-learning environment and carry a price tag of $7-million, less than the first building because it is smaller.

For the new housing, the university will lease land to an independent, not-for-profit foundation to build and manage the units. Financing probably would come through tax-exempt bonds, Ritch said. Land leases would be for the length of the bonds, at which time the facilities would become university property.

'Something was missing'

Rose Sinclair is a 20-year-old sophomore who lives with her parents in northern St. Petersburg. She would take advantage of campus housing if it were available. She began at USF St. Petersburg as a freshman and said that in her first year, she would have liked a dormitory setting.

"Now I would say apartment," Sinclair said. Living on campus would add to her college experience.

"Oh, yes, definitely. When I first came here it was frustrating. I felt something was missing. It's not really a college environment."

While campus housing will make the student experience at USF St. Petersburg more traditional, it will not increase class size, Ritch said. Part of the reason for that is that the classrooms on campus are small. The university also tries to keep classes small so students get extra attention.

That is one reason sophomore Kyle Johns, 19, likes the campus.

"You get more attention here. In Tampa (at USF) classes are bigger. The teachers give you more individual attention around here," Johns said.

He lives in St. Petersburg with his father and would take advantage of campus housing if it were available.

"I would like the freedom from living with someone," Johns said. "I'd like a room to myself. I would have to know a person rather well to live with them."

Pretty but sleepy

Johns said he definitely expects campus life to pick up when the university provides housing. USF St. Petersburg has been a commuter campus mainly for juniors, seniors and graduate students since its beginning in 1965 and thus does not have all of the student life amenities that a live-in college does.

But the university sits in one of the more inviting settings in St. Petersburg, built on the edge of Bayboro Harbor. The main classroom buildings -- Bayboro, Coquina and Davis halls -- form a semicircle facing the water. The interior of the semicircle has a few picnic tables and seats for smoking, cell phone conversations, eating and relaxing between classes.

The first new building will go north on the site now occupied by the campus police. The second is recommended to be built in the parking area east of the Florida Center for Teachers. Neither site is more than a few minutes' walk from the classroom areas.

Parking crunch

As the new buildings bring more students and cars, the parking situation, already tight, will become critical. The plans for the first building include one parking space for every two students. And Ritch said officials may decide that a geographical campus center is needed and rip out the parking lot that runs up to Davis Hall and make it green space.

"Immediately (after construction), parking is a problem, Ritch said. The university will have to lease nearby parking, build a parking deck or maybe both, he said.

Start this fall?

The university may try a very small residency program for this fall involving only a few apartments and maybe a dozen students, Ritch said. By 2003, the number of units needed will be greater.

"We would go out and propose to area landlords. We would ask to lease 10 rooms and then we would be the one to sublet those out, and we would guarantee rent if they weren't full," said Ritch. "I think 40 is the number to start with."

One complex the university has had general talks with is Carlton Towers apartments at 470 Third St. S, Ritch said. But it may be too big for the first, small group in 2003, he said.

The university also is interested in the Fountain Inn at 250 Sixth Ave. S, not for housing but for classrooms and faculty offices, Ritch said.

Youthful vibe

USF St. Petersburg's student body of 4,000 will increase over the next 10 years to 8,000 to 10,000.

"We are talking about doubling (the population) and a little more as the maximum for the site," Ritch said.

Students already are part of downtown even though they attend a commuter college. That will increase with housing. Both Johns and Sinclair said they enjoy downtown, BayWalk in particular.

The $40-million entertainment/retail complex opened in November 2000 and pumped up activity in a downtown that was recovering from a long, deep sleep.

Rick Mussett, administrator of the city's Economic Development Administration, says a diverse downtown is desirable. "When we planned for the development of downtown, we planned for diversity, an eclectic mix. That (having college students added) is the urban mix. It kind of comes with the territory," Mussett said.

Bob Serata of Bernies & Son jewelers on Beach Drive, who has been the head of the Beach Drive merchants association, sees students as consumers.

"People going through college will be professionals soon. They will remember us," Serata said of the downtown merchants. "Whether students will become customers of mine, I doubt it." But they'll fill Muvico theaters, shops and restaurants and help everybody, he said.

"Bring them on."

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