Radnor residents feeling like townies

The Rev. John P. Stack , Villanova University's vice president for student life, concedes that some students "are still learning to be good neighbors."
The Rev. John P. Stack , Villanova University's vice president for student life, concedes that some students "are still learning to be good neighbors." (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

With as many as a third of those in the township now college students, social problems are fraying relations.

Posted: March 12, 2012

It's Friday night and a crowd of loud, inebriated college students pours out of a local pub. Two suburban women and their tween daughters walk past and get in their car.

Before they can drive off, one of the young bar-goers offers a rude gesture: a fleshy rear end pressed hard against the car's back window.

A typical weekend in Happy Valley? Actually, no. It was witnessed one night in Radnor Township, outside Flip & Bailey's, in the Garrett Hill neighborhood.

The stereotypes about the affluent Main Line suburb - think foxhunts, The Philadelphia Story, and author David Brooks' latte-crazed, Volvo-driving "bobos" - mask a surprising reality. Radnor is now a big-time college town, with all the beer- and urine-soaked uproar that comes with it.

The recent controversy over Villanova University's planned $200 million expansion on the south side of Lancaster Avenue with new dorms for 1,160 students also cast a light on a little-known fact: As many as one-third of the township's residents - estimated at 10,000 people - are college students. That includes those living not just at Villanova but also Eastern and Cabrini Colleges and Valley Forge Military Academy and College, as well as students living off campus.

In comparison, nearby Lower Merion, which is almost twice as populated as Radnor, is home to about 3,500 students, officials said.

Even critics acknowledge that so many young people bring an influx of vitality and cash to Radnor. But the students also bring nonstop complaints from grown-up neighbors about hooting and hollering late at night, underage drinking, trash piled high on the wrong day, traffic nightmares, and houses illegally stuffed with four or five young people who urinate on lawns and occasionally have sex in driveways.

Colleen Price, who lives at the end of a row of stately, upscale houses on Chamounix Road in St. Davids, between Eastern and Valley Forge, felt as though she were living on campus after Eastern acquired a parking lot from Valley Forge and students tramped across her lawn at all hours.

"I am not your cut-through," Price said. "I bought into a neighborhood. . . . I didn't buy into a campus. I've got over a million and a half in my house. I can't afford to lose this. I pay $28,000 in taxes and they pay nothing."

Though Price said she and her neighbors negotiated curbs on future development at Eastern and a parking lot shuttle bus to reduce traffic, there are still plans at each major campus for expanded facilities - although not larger enrollments, officials promise - that have made some Radnor residents uneasy.

Cabrini wants to build a 700-car parking garage and student center, and Eastern has won approval for a student center. In addition to dorms, Villanova wants to build a five-story parking garage, stores, and a performing arts center.

Radnor's town-and-gown battles are being fought on its western and eastern fronts, with the heaviest combat in the east - most notably Garrett Hill, where narrow streets of twins and rowhouses have the densest concentration of Villanova off-campus housing.

"I don't hate them, but I do love it in the summertime when they're on vacation, because it's quiet," said Sara Pilling, 74, who lives on Garrett Avenue among 13 student rental properties. In her 30 years on the block, she's seen it all - beer bottles filled with urine, the drunken 1:30 a.m. fight with the cabdriver, animals foraging through trash brought out on the wrong day, the couple having "sexual relations" in the driveway.

"They're young," Pilling acknowledged. "They like to have parties on their front porch at 11:30 p.m. and they don't understand noise carries."

Nichole Collins, 39, a mother of three who also lives on Garrett, is used to the ups and downs. "Sometimes it can be loud, sometimes it can be crazy, but I look at it they're walking home and not driving," she said. "At least they're being safe. Mostly it's peeing - what are you going to do?"

Students say it's not their fault.

"We understand we disturb adults and families who live here, but where else can we go?" asked Villanova senior Catherine Sanio, 22, of Margate, N.J., who shares a four-bedroom twin with four other students.

Student renters complain about the lack of housing options on and off campus, sky-high rents, and frequent noise citations when all they were doing was having a conversation.

No one disputes that there's overcrowding. Radnor permits no more than two unrelated students in a unit, but the law is frequently ignored. Tough there are nearly 400 student-approved houses in Radnor, several apartment buildings, most notably Home Properties of Bryn Mawr, are also big off-campus hubs.

Enforcing the two-person limit is hit or miss, at best. Surprise inspections ended a few years ago because of legal concerns. Today, township officials call landlords to schedule inspections, setting off a mad scramble to remove mattresses and personal belongings before inspectors show up.

"The township needs to get real," said Ali Lentini, a Villanova senior who also lives with four others in a Garrett Hill twin meant for two. "They don't understand this is a college town."

Township Manager Robert Zienkowsi said Radnor - which receives as many as two or three complaints daily about unruly students - is hiring a full-time inspector just to deal with rentals. And he has scheduled a meeting March 21 for residents to voice their concerns about Villanova's building plans.

"We do the best we can, and we're trying to be more proactive," said Police Superintendent William Colarulo, who added that his officers hand out fliers encouraging law-abiding behavior to student renters in September, meet with landlords, and occasionally check license plates against who is listed on leases.

The Rev. John P. Stack, vice president for student life at the Catholic university, concedes that some Villanova students "are still learning to be good neighbors" and said the school takes steps, including issuing a code of conduct, to ensure better off-campus behavior. But he expects more students, including seniors, will live on campus with the added housing.

"Obviously, we wouldn't put forth such a big plan if we thought they were going to be half-empty," Stack said.

But neighbors fear the dorms are part of a plan to boost enrollment - now nearly 10,500, including graduate students - in conjunction with possibly moving up the football program to the Big East Conference in the NCAA's Division I. The university has said it has no plan to increase its student population, but Township Commissioner John Fisher said "the fact is the university refuses to cap enrollment, and for me that's a problem."

The punctuation mark on Radnor as a college town may have come last week, when stores near campus such as the usually jam-packed Bagel Factory were deserted and Jane Hoffman wondered why there was no traffic on Lancaster Avenue on her way to a half-empty spinning class in Wayne. Then she remembered.

Villanova was on spring break. And when those fun-loving students return, they'll find a new addition to the neighborhood: Garrett Hill Alehouse opens Friday.

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

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