The Student Life Village seems to be a great place for Virginia Tech students. Space for 5,000 residents. Walking distance to restaurants and leisure facilities. Extensive green spaces and even a chapel for relaxation and quiet reflection. Bike paths and hiking trails. Buildings powered by renewable energy. A rescue squad.
All right on the campus – if it’s ever built.
Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors will consider adding the bold, nearly $1 billion Student Life Village project to the university’s master plan during Monday morning’s Board of Directors meeting in Blacksburg. The project, which is essentially a large student housing and retail community run by the university on campus, has been hailed for its innovative ideas and has the backing of city officials who want tech to bring more students on campus accommodates. Virginia Tech’s recent growth to more than 30,000 undergraduate students has strained city services and caused a housing crisis that has driven families and other residents out of Blacksburg, city leaders say.
However, the project is rattling on the nerves of some local developers, who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building college dormitories in recent years to accommodate tech’s explosive growth. They worry that Student Life Village could leave their apartment complexes vacant, especially if enrollment growth falters. They believe downtown businesses will also suffer from the amenities the project offers.
“My concern is that 5,000 beds will be added [on campus], and there is no growth, we will have many openings,” said Joann Craig, chief financial officer of Blacksburg-based CMG Leasing, Inc., which owns residential properties throughout the New River Valley. “It won’t be a pretty picture.”
City support for the project is clear, said longtime city manager Marc Verniel.
“Our position is that if Virginia Tech continues to increase their student enrollments, they must provide more housing, recreation, food for their students and other amenities on campus,” he said.
Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith reiterated that position in an Oct. 28 letter to Tech President Timothy Sands.
“With less than a third of Virginia Tech’s students living on campus, it’s high time the university showed the same dedication as Blacksburg in including students in its long-term plans,” Hager-Smith wrote. “If Virginia Tech is to continue to grow, the Student Life Village is necessary.”
Hager-Smith added that tech growth has outstripped college housing construction, leading to increases in house prices and rents.
“This increased competition has pushed up rents and home prices, effectively pricing out residents and potential newcomers,” Hager-Smith wrote.
Rents and home values are significantly higher in Blacksburg than in other neighboring communities. The average home value in Blacksburg is $400,000, according to Long & Foster Real Estate, compared to an average of $138,228 for the rest of Montgomery County. Nest Realty’s 2022 semi-annual report for the New River Valley lists an even higher median selling price for Blacksburg — $473,068.
The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Blacksburg rose 41 percent last year to nearly $1,500, according to online rental marketplace Rent.com. A one-bedroom apartment costs an average of $1,080 (up 19 percent) and three-bedroom apartments cost $1,780 (up 9 percent).
Most of Blacksburg’s approximately 50,000 residents are college students. The city’s economy relies on university and student spending, including housing. But city leaders want to ease the strain on infrastructure like roads and utilities and reduce urban sprawl caused by the proliferation of off-campus housing.
“We’ve added a lot of dormitories around town,” Verniel said. “As the university continues to grow, it is best for students to live close to classes and close to restaurants. They will be able to walk or bike or scooter or whatever mode of transport they use to get to class these days.”
Virginia Tech’s expansion is no secret to anyone who’s tried navigating busy streets near campus and along Prices Fork Road, which has seen commercial and residential expansion in recent years. The university has added about 5,000 students over the past five years. In 2019, the size of the freshman class exceeded expectations by nearly 1,000 students, forcing the university to accommodate about 500 new students due to a lack of adequate hotel housing.
This prompted city officials and developers to work together to improve student housing options. Craig estimates that developers have spent nearly $400 million on new projects and renovations in five years. She worries that those investments could be at risk if the number of tech housing on campus increases and enrollment stops growing.
“It’s a huge investment,” she said. “As Tech grew, the city said we needed beds [for students]. People put a lot of money into it. Right now there is a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen” as far as tech’s future growth is concerned.
About five years ago, Virginia Tech set a goal of reaching 30,000 enrollment by 2023, and then hit that mark three years early. Sands said future growth would be determined by whether or not the university and city could accommodate more students.
In 2019, he posted on Twitter that enrollment was capped at 30,000 “until VT and Blacksburg infrastructure is in place. Will reevaluate then.”
Virginia Tech’s master plan, approved in 2018, calls for mixed-use districts on campus, new buildings, improved accessibility across campus, and possible housing expansion. During its two-day session beginning Sunday, the Visitors Committee will consider including the Student Life Village project in the master plan.
The village concept was introduced last spring by former vice president of student affairs Frank Shushok, who is now president of Roanoke College. According to a May press release from Virginia Tech, Shushok proposed to the Board of Visitors a project that would include “living, comfort, recreation, dining and enrichment spaces for up to 5,000 students on campus. The plan will focus on integrated, high-quality student life offerings, as well as vibrant learning programs, facilities and public spaces to serve students both on and off campus.”
The project would be built on the current Virginia Tech Golf Course and Oak Lane dormitory and will include dormitory-style, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments and suites. A mix of local and national chain restaurants, indoor leisure facilities and other amenities are planned. Students would pay for accommodation, although prices have not yet been determined.
Though the project can house 5,000 students, Tech also plans to demolish two dormitories that currently house about 1,300 people, meaning Student Life Village would add about 3,700 new beds to the campus.
The project would be built in three phases at a total cost of $935 million, according to documents filed with the Board of Visitors.
But even if the board accepts the project, that doesn’t mean the village will ever be built. Funding and other approvals are pending, said tech spokesman Mark Owczarski.
Owczarski, Tech’s associate vice president of communications and marketing, wrote in an email to Cardinal News that the Student Life Village “is a proposal. An idea. Not set in stone; may or may never happen. In order to be accepted, it has to go through the approval and acceptance of the university management.”
In other words, even if the board decides to include the project in the university’s master plan, construction could still take years.
Developers hope to use this time to get a clearer picture of Tech’s growth plans and the city’s housing needs. The announcement of Student Life Village last spring seems to have taken some developers by surprise, and now they want to make sure they stay up to date on the university’s plans.
“I think our concerns start with communication,” said Patrick McCloud, chief executive officer of the Virginia Apartment Management Association in Richmond. McCloud has served as a liaison between Tech and the New River Valley chapter of the association.
He wished homebuilders “had been brought up in the conversation sooner,” but he added that communication between developers and the university has improved.
He reiterated Craig’s concern that the city could have many empty apartments in the future as tech hosts more students on campus and growth slows.
“We want to avoid over-development,” McCloud said. “Vacancy can lead to a decline in the overall supply of housing in Blacksburg. We want to make sure the university doesn’t just think within Blacksburg, but thinks about the entire city of Blacksburg.”
McCloud noted a recent example in Farmville, where developers were building homes to accommodate an expected enrollment boom at Longwood University that never materialized. Longwood then ordered that sophomores live on campus, exacerbating the local abundance of housing. He said that two housing companies had gone bankrupt.
McCloud said that because Virginia Tech has already met a previously stated goal of enrolling 30,000 undergraduate students, he doesn’t know if businesses and city leaders can count on the university’s continued growth.
“Our message is: Don’t forget the private housing providers,” he said. “Overdevelopment can be a death knell. It can reduce the quality of life. We don’t want to get into a situation where we have more housing than we need because that can lead to serious problems.”