The Wall Street Journal, in its unapologetically named Mansion section, just published a feature on private luxury developments for college students. While some might view this piece as yet another sign of the higher education apocalypse (not that they’d necessarily be wrong to do so), I’d like to put a more positive spin on this trend. These luxury units, while large by traditional college-student standards, are still quite small compared to real-people standards. College is for many people their first experience living on their own, and the typical college dorm doesn’t make a great first impression for small-space communal living. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people want to move to the big house in the suburbs as soon as they can after graduation. Higher-quality student housing has the potential to nudge consumer preferences towards more efficient living options, and that’s a good thing.
Of course, these developments aren’t without their problems. They tend to be located farther from campus, which discourages walking. Some come bundled with a parking spot, which discourages alternative transportation modes. And despite the profusion of amenities they offer, they are still essentially residential-only developments. But a small streets village on the Midway could provide desirable living for students with none of these downsides.
The University of Chicago is at a critical juncture. It’s been boosting its undergraduate enrollment at the same time as it’s been closing dorms. The Shoreland shut down several years ago and was replaced by the South Campus Residence Hall, just across the Midway. This is a walkability improvement in terms of students getting to class, but a hindrance in terms of access to retail and public transportation. Pierce Tower, my old stomping grounds, is scheduled for demolition at the end of the school year. Despite the opening of the new dorm, the housing situation has been tight, and the demolition of Pierce (which will likely be replaced by another dorm, though not for several years) will make things tighter.
It seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before the luxury student housing development companies smell the blood in the water. My (rather unsurprising, given the theme of this blog) suggestion to the University is to act now and push for small streets development on the Midway. This would provide additional housing (private and/or University-owned) for students and important amenities for the now quite substantial population of students south of the Midway. Perhaps most importantly, it would show the rest of the country a new and better model for (just-)off-campus living. Students getting their first taste of independent life in a cozy small-streets village could spark a shift in consumer sentiment that would reshape our society for the better. And isn’t that what higher education is all about?