Villanova neighbors see problems with dorm expansion plan

Posted: February 16, 2012

As the closest neighbor to Villanova University, Joe Vandergeest can see the silhouette of the school's Gothic chapel against the night sky and hear the roar of the crowd at football games on fall weekends.

"It's a lot of fun," he said of living next to the Catholic university, situated on 260 acres in the heart of the Main Line.

But if the school goes ahead with plans to add a five-story parking lot, two dorms, stores, and a performing arts center to its south campus, Vandergeest said, he plans to move.

"Just the sheer size of it," he said of the $200 million-plus project, which would transform two parking lots on Lancaster Avenue into a lively part of campus, home to 1,160 students.

The campus silhouette would be a little different, too. Instead of the chapel spires, Vandergeest would have a view of a concrete garage.

In his Old Oaks neighborhood, the streets are narrow, the neighbors friendly, and those autumn football games are only an occasional pain when cars zoom past to avoid traffic jams on Lancaster Avenue.

With all those new students, the pain could linger all year, he fears.

The university says it needs to create more housing for students who now live off-campus in surrounding communities. Currently, the university guarantees beds for 4,400 freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, with about 2,000 students living elsewhere.

According to Villanova, the three- to five-year project will offer on-campus housing for approximately 85 percent of undergraduates, enhancing campus life, decreasing traffic to and from campus, and significantly reducing student and vehicle presence in Radnor Township neighborhoods.

"No one has shown us what the benefit to the community will be," countered Jonathan Heckscher, who lives on Aldwyn Lane and who spoke this week at a meeting in which Villanova presented its plans to the Radnor Township Board of Commissioners. "It does everything, directly or indirectly, to harm the residents."

Ken Valosky, vice-president for administration and finance, said in a statement that the school appreciated the input from residents and the commissioners and looked forward to continued dialogue. The matter is scheduled to go before the township Planning Commission next month.

Several residents who spoke at the meeting reminded commissioners that Villanova has not always been a good neighbor. They cited the glaring lights of the football stadium.

"At every township meeting we've had in the last year they've promised to turn them off when not needed," said Suzanne McLean, who lives on Hawthorne Lane. "They keep saying they're going to do it, but come midnight many nights they're still on. As a community we've learned not to believe what they say."

Commissioner John Fisher, whose Seventh Ward covers some of the streets near the university, said, "We need some straight talk from the university," noting that it promised not to increase enrollment but won't agree to an enrollment cap.

Fisher said he believed the current plan "won't provide the relief that the university is claiming."

Instead of two parking lots with five entrances and exits on Ithan and Lancaster Avenues - an intersection that is clogged during big campuswide events - the new parking garage will have two ways to get in and out on Ithan and one on Lancaster, which residents say will force cars onto surrounding streets.

Neighbors also object to the size of the structure, which is at least two stories higher than the zoning code allows.

Some question just how many upperclassmen are going to actually give up their apartments and move back on campus. And while Villanova says it won't raise enrollment, residents wonder how it will fill those empty beds.

Commissioner John Nagle said he often stops in a bagel store near campus to talk to students.

"I haven't had one tell they want to move back on campus," he said.

He said he liked the "underlying plan a lot, but there's a lot of things to talk about," including the effect on the rental market.

While the commissioners seemed generally upbeat about the project, some mentioned increased traffic and called for a pedestrian bridge or tunnel to get students back and forth safely across Lancaster Avenue.

"Students are going back and forth many times a day. That's thousands of students," Nagle said.

For Vandergeest, this is his second go-round with Villanova, which installed a baseball/softball field 75 feet from his home several years ago. He said the school put in nets and a loudspeaker despite homeowner objections.

On game days during the spring, "they're playing rap all afternoon," he said. "It drives you nuts."


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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