The West Chester Borough Council introduced the discussion of eliminating the future expansion of student housing in the town center at its weekly meeting last Tuesday night.
The ordinance would not affect student housing that has been “grandfathered,” or already existing as designated rented space for students.
The Borough Council’s incentive to impede the growth of student density in the town center lies in the level of growth in the student population. Stan Zukin, who spoke at the meeting and rents to students in the West Chester borough, was given permission to renovate a building on Gay Street, on which he has not yet acted.
Council President Holly V. Brown noted that the student population has expanded considerably in the past few years, which increases their concentration in residential areas. The high quality education for a fraction of the price of other colleges in the area has led to a higher number of incoming students at the university. While the university’s student count rested at 11,000 several years ago, it has since increased to 14,000 and will likely continue to grow.
Zukin discussed the results of the 1990 Census, which indicated that 57% of the borough was designated to rentals. In 2000, the Census had reported thicker density with 63% of rentals located within the borough—the only other place in Pa. with higher concentration of rentals was Penn State University. He contended that the higher abundance leads to the requirement of more off-campus housing for students.
“How can you look at human beings and tell them where to live because they are not a protected class?” Zukin said. “We were all students, and we still are students, we are still learning.”
Tony Stancato, a building owner who rents to several graduate students in the borough, re-emphasized Zukin’s sentiments at the meeting. “If it’s not a problem then why limit it?” Zukin asked Council members.
Members of the Council did not express the same viewpoints, as they voiced their desires to assist the town economy by increasing the frequency of business for their higher-end restaurants and boutiques. Several Council members expressed their desire to incur “empty nesters” who will provide the funds necessary to facilitate that need.
“You want to incentivize a balance [to determine] who will frequent your restaurants and boutiques,” Mayor Carolyn T. Comitta said. “The goal is to create more sustainable balance. This is a complex issue; you need to look at the unintended consequences. Our comprehensive plan
is 12 years out-of-date.”
This was not the first time the council discussed the possibility of deterring the growth of student housing in the town center.
“We all put money in because the borough council voted nine years ago and we did what you told us to do,” Zukin said. “And now you want to take that away. We have done everything we could do to restore downtown West Chester. It’s student money that paid for that restoring.”
West Chester students also reacted to the proposition.
“I can’t say this is surprising to me, in fact, I can’t believe this hasn’t been brought up sooner,” West Chester University fourth-year economics major, Alex Shinners said. “I’m not sure there would be enough ‘empty nesters’ to replace the lost business that restaurants, bars, and landlords would experience without the support of students.”
“If their main problem is the loudness of college students, it’s not going to change the fact that these students are still going to go to the bars whether they live in town or a mile away,” WCU fourth-year Alize McCorriston said.
While the Council has not come to a conclusion and will likely debate the issue for at least several weeks, Zukin offered the council a guarantee that he would not build a West Chester Commons in the town center if the Council agreed to delay their decision.
Former Borough Council member and history professor at the university, Jim Jones, commented on Zukin’s promise, “Without any way to guarantee that Mr. Zukin has given up a legal right to which he is currently entitled, Council cannot give his promise much weight.”
The Council will discuss the issue further at the next meeting and expects to vote on the matter within the next month.
Brynn Dougherty is a fourth-year student majoring in economics and finance with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at BD670913@wcupa.edu.