Buy and Swell

Washington University is swallowing chunks of University City, and that may be a good thing

Jack Prindable, a self-proclaimed rabble-rouser, is used to being on the receiving end of establishment ire. Members of the City Council in University City turn the other way when they spot him coming. Others simply pass him off as a crank, but Prindable, a slight man with graying hair, couldn't care less.

Last summer, when Prindable, president of the Lindell Neighborhood Association, asked the City Council to consider a four-month freeze on property sales to Washington University, the council swiftly rejected his proposal. Mayor Joseph Adams defended the university and its working relationship with the city. He told Prindable that Wash. U. was compensating the city by paying the salary of an additional police officer. The university's property was well maintained and an asset to the neighborhood. "I'm not getting into a debate here," Adams told Prindable. "What you're asking us to do would violate the U.S. and state constitutions. You need to check the legal cases."

Prindable seems mystified by the response. "All I was asking was for the university to voluntarily go into a four-month moratorium so a citizens' group could be formed to study the impact of the purchases," he says. "They laughed me out of the chamber. The mayor was bombastic and lectured me."

Jack Prindable
Jennifer Silverberg
Jack Prindable

To Prindable, it was evidence of the city's unwillingness to determine what impact, if any, Wash. U. sprawl will have on the local tax base and the city's public schools. "There has been a failure to engage the total community in a fair and equitable resolution of this issue -- even though it impacts all residents," he says.

Trouble is, most residents aren't complaining. Although there was an initial rumble of concern during the first round of purchases in 1998, it has, for the most part, given way to a welcoming embrace. Housing-advocacy groups have been putting together proposals they hope will make Wash. U. reach into its deep pockets. And University City has been quietly meeting with university officials, including Chancellor Mark Wrighton, asking for contributions that will offset the loss in property taxes.

The requests are akin to pressuring a benevolent older brother to do a little bit more.

University City sprang up in the shadow of Washington University. The city's founder, Edward G. Lewis, named it for "Wash. U. specifically and education generally," says city manager Frank Ollendorff; hence the open book on the city seal. Ever since, the two have been intertwined: Hundreds of Wash. U. faculty and students are city residents, and university volunteers help write grants, donate artwork and give their time for city projects.

In the 1980s, when the northern part of the city was struggling, officials asked the university to purchase blighted properties in the Parkview Gardens area. The university gracefully declined. "At the time, the trend was to build dormitories," Ollendorff says. "They really didn't have a need for the buildings." But Wash. U. helped in smaller ways. While investors like Mike Giger bought properties in the declining neighborhood, students and faculty helped start community gardens and after-school programs. Using state and federal grants, the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood Association purchased and rehabbed blighted properties. Residents, including those on Eastgate Avenue, just north of the University City Loop, helped out, working weekly bingo games to raise funds for streetlights and building renovations. The neighborhood, with its large, affordable flats, has been on a steady upswing ever since. Several years ago, Giger and others went looking for another landlord they believed would build on their past work.

"We were invested in the neighborhood," says Giger, who is also president of the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood Association. "We weren't going to sell to just anybody who wanted to make a quick buck. We wanted to move the neighborhood to the next plateau. We wanted professional management and an ownership we could depend upon." They approached Wash. U., which bought 17 apartments, including some owned by Giger.

Two years later, a walk down Eastgate seems like a campus stroll. Red doors with green trim are covered with fliers advertising upcoming student activities. Brass plates mark 15 buildings on Eastgate alone as Wash. U. student housing. In just four years, Wash. U. has purchased 125 apartment buildings around its campus, 79 of them in University City. Under state statute, Wash. U. pays no property taxes. George Burris, executive director of off-campus housing, says the university started purchasing the property to ensure that affordable off-campus housing would continue to be readily available to students. With more than 6,000 students living off-campus, he says, it is likely that Wash. U. will continue to buy even more properties. Purchase contracts are pending on 20 more buildings in U. City.

"We are always looking," Burris says. "As opportunities arise, we will attempt to buy additional buildings that fit our needs."

Giger says that the purchases stabilize the neighborhood and offset any loss in property tax. "They provide a shuttle, more security, and maintain their property." Giger says. "Overall property values increase for the rest of the buildings on the street. What they are doing is a win-win for everybody."

For University City, $21 million of its assessed value has left the tax rolls because of Wash. U. purchases. "We are eroding the tax base and shifting more of the load to individual tax payers," Prindable says. The university doesn't need the tax break, he adds.

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