USF St. Petersburg housing crunch has students at Hilton

As students began moving into USF St. Petersburg's Residence Hall 1 last week, many learned they would have to find housing elsewhere.

The main option: the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront at 333 First St. S. The 15-story hotel, which is a block from campus, has 333 rooms.

While many students requested the seven-story dorm, which has 351 rooms, school officials say they went looking for temporary housing when they realized the dorm had reached capacity.

"We contracted with the Hilton to provide housing (at no additional cost) through the semester, for those who want to take that option," said Dr. Kent Kelso, regional vice chancellor for students affairs. The agreement is not a long-term lease, he said, so if students find housing elsewhere, they can leave without penalty.

As of Thursday, there were 50 students staying at the Hilton.

"The Hilton was very amenable in working out a solution," said Kelso. In addition to housing students, the hotel has allowed USF to put residence hall assistants on site.

"We verified that the Hilton has camera systems and security personnel in the parking lot, so we're very comfortable with them," he said.

The campus housing crunch isn't a new problem at USF. "Last year we also had a significant amount of (housing) contracts over our maximum," said Kelso. "But a lot of students found other housing."

So why was this year different?

"We have more freshmen who are from outside of the 30-mile radius of the campus," said Kelso. In years past, most were from Pinellas or south Hillsborough County and familiar enough with the area to find other housing on their own.

"Our enrollment is up," he said. "Just in the last three years we've done a lot more marketing and recruitment, so when we talk to guidance counselors from across the state, they know who we are."

USF has plans to deal with the housing situation, including building another dormitory on campus, but also will look to other downtown options.

"We've been working on it (additional housing) for about a year, and quite a bit of the planning and design is under way," said Kelso. The plans call for a 35,000-square-foot multipurpose student center at Sixth Avenue S and Second Street that would include a food court, conference rooms and dorms.

In the meantime, the school has talked with representatives of Urban Style Flats, a new apartment complex in the former Graham-Rogall public housing towers for elderly and disabled residents. The developer, Phil Farley, gave university officials a tour, said Kelso, but "they won't be able to take any occupants for 30 to 60 days."

The housing shortage at USF also has been a boon to a small restaurant in the Northern Trust Bank building nearby.

The owner at Cafe 100 at 100 Second Ave. S has worked out a meal plan for the displaced students.

Chef William Higbee said the restaurant, which previously served breakfast and lunch, has added a dinner menu. "I'm basically open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m."

"We started serving dinner for the students after Dr. Kelso came in and said the kids didn't have anywhere to go eat. So I said I'd serve dinner from 4 to 6 p.m.," said Higbee.

He is creating the Cafe 100 Club, a joint sponsorship with USF St. Petersburg that is basically a gift card. The card will allow students or parents to go to a website and ''put money on the card so kids can come get their meals," said Higbee.

According to Higbee, Cafe 100 will offer "gourmet comfort food, meatloaf, fried chicken, salad bar — like mom used to make." The restaurant will offer two soups, chili and black beans and rice every day. The menu will be posted daily at 1cafe100.com.

Will students be able to afford dining at Cafe 100?

A breakfast of two eggs, choice of bacon, sausage or ham and choice of grits, potato or oatmeal and choice of toast and a small drink goes for $3.50, before the 10 percent discount for USF students. Higbee said the meals are available to the public, too.

"When I first opened, the building was full and there were 400 construction workers with the Signature (condominium) building, so I was busy," said Higbee. But when the Signature was completed and the recession prompted some businesses in his building to leave, there was a dropoff in business. So now "my concentration has been drawing customers from outside the building," he said.

Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8874.

USF St. Petersburg housing crunch has students at Hilton 08/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 6:19pm]

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