ST. PETERSBURG — Following a few setbacks, plans for a 375-bed dormitory on the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus are a go, helping to meet the ever-growing demand for student housing.
Construction of the $30 million building will begin in February and run through summer 2020. The dorm, which will also include a 400-seat dining hall, will boost USF's overall on-campus housing capacity in downtown St. Petersburg to 925 students, or about a fifth of overall enrollment there.
To pay for it, USF will borrow against itself, a move leaders are using to prop up their ongoing work to consolidate the university system’s three campuses in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota under a single accreditation. In reality, the new dorm has been a goal for years; plans for it have just changed shape.
The proposal approved by the State University System Board of Governors last week shows USF will leverage its profits from residence halls in Tampa — which have grown substantially in recent years — to fund the new dorm in St. Petersburg.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package
The financial plan “exemplifies the strength of the USF System and the importance of the consolidation process,” university president Judy Genshaft said in a letter Friday to the USF community. “By working together, we are able to best meet the needs of our students.”
USF Tampa has steadily worked to meet student housing needs for years. In August, the university celebrated three new dorms there that upped Tampa's total on-campus housing enrollment to more than 6,300 students. Meanwhile, the need on St. Petersburg's campus, where students were once housed in nearby hotel rooms, has continued to grow.
As of September, 80 students there were on a dorm waiting list. And that was after the university squeezed two beds into rooms meant for one to fit an additional 60 students, stretching housing capacity to 541.
Initially, the new dorm, which is yet to be named, was slated to open next year. It would have been funded through a partnership between USF and a private developer, who would have taken control of everything from design to management, and operated the dorm for a profit for some time before turning over ownership to USF. A similar set-up fueled the $134 million residential complex at USF Tampa called the Village, completed this year.
But university leaders scrapped that plan, saying it would stretch the construction timeline, and pass on added costs to students when the point of the project is to offer better-priced housing than what is available off campus. They opted instead to fund the dorm at USF St. Petersburg, which will be much smaller than the Villages project, through the university itself.
The 125,000-square-foot, six-story dorm will be built on the northwestern corner of campus, on Sixth Avenue between Third and Fourth streets south, near the university police department. The dining hall will be on the first floor, and the remaining levels will each include dorm rooms, a student lounge and a study room. Shared laundry facilities will be included, too.
The average cost of a dorm room, depending on which type a student chooses, will be between $4,671 and $4,505 per semester, according to a cost schedule developed by the USF Board of Trustees. That's cheaper than the average price of an off-campus apartment, according to Brailsford and Dunlavey, an out-of-state risk management consultant hired by USF to study the need for the new facility.
The study did confirm a need for more student housing on St. Petersburg's campus. However, J. Ben Watkins III, director of the state's division of bond finance, said in an Oct. 26 letter to the Board of Governors that USF has provided no evidence that additional dining space is needed, too.
"The demand for the dining facility appears to be largely driven by the mandatory purchase of a meal plan by all students who reside on campus, which will double with the construction of the new dorm," Watkins wrote. "Requiring a meal plan to live on campus and then using the meal plan requirement to justify the demand for the construction of a new dining facility raises issues about the costs to students residing in on-campus housing."
He added that USF has agreed with food service company Sodexo, which will operate the dining hall, to raise prices for meal plans. But the university did not provide Watkins with its agreement with Sodexo after "numerous requests," he said, so the state office could not analyze how USF will work to keep costs down for students.
Less than a week after the Board of Governors received Watkins' letter, USF Board of Trustees Chairman Brian Lamb sent one of his own, defending the need for the dining hall. He attached an Oct. 29 letter from USF St. Petersburg student body president Daniel Kelso, who said the facility will provide students with affordable, nutritious meals and "a place to gather in community."
Mandatory meal plans are typical for many state universities, USF St. Petersburg Chancellor Martin Tadlock said in an interview Tuesday. Having housing and dining in the same place takes stress off students, he added.
"If you look around campus, you will see that we have limited dining opportunities," he said. "Although you can walk to downtown St. Pete (for food), you can't do that between classes."
There's been a dorm waiting list since before Tadlock arrived at USF three years ago. He said he's pleased more students will get a shot at living on campus, which is said to boost academic performance.
"It's important that they are able to engage in all of the campus opportunities that we provide for residential students," he said. "Especially for first-time college students ... They have a lot of adjustments to make. ... It's nice to take one more worry off the table."
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