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Foundation building: Student housing at UW-Rock County still faces challenges.

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Catherine W. Idzerda
November 29, 2013

JANESVILLE--Richland Center isn't near much.

Surrounded by the rolling hills of the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin, the city boasts a population of 5,184. The nearest significant metropolitan area is Madison, and that's more than 60 miles away.

Despite the lack of urban amenities, UW-Richland Center, a two-year campus, manages to draw students from all over the world. This year, an estimated 7 percent of the student body is made up of international students. They come from countries as diverse as Pakistan, China, Tunisia and South Korea.

UW-Richland Center couldn't host those students without on-campus housing that includes apartments and traditional dormitories, said UW-Richland Center Dean Patrick Hagen.

The residential option has helped attract local students, as well, Hagen said. The program has been so successful that the college is entering its fourth expansion of its housing facilities.

Officials at UW-Rock County and the UW-Rock County Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the college, hope to duplicate that success by bringing student apartments to the Janesville campus.

To get there, the UW-Rock County Foundation will form a separate nonprofit called the Rock Residential Foundation.

Fundraising has already begun for the project, which is expected to cost more than $6 million, said UW-Rock County Dean Carmen Wilson.

If foundation efforts are successful, UW-Rock County will join other two-year campuses that already have dorms or student housing, including UW-Marinette, UW-Marathon and UW-Fox Valley. Two other campuses, UW-Baraboo and UW-Marshfield, have housing projects in the works.

BACKGROUND

The proposal for student housing has been in the works since July, when the UW-Rock County Foundation put out a request for qualifications for a construction firm, according to the foundation's website. 

However, many of UW-Rock County's neighbors say they didn't hear about the location of the proposed hall until a meeting Nov. 20.

By that time, the foundation and the design-build company it hired, CD Smith Construction of Fond du Lac, had considered at least two sites on county-owned land near the campus.

The proposal put forward at the Nov. 20 meeting put the building parallel to  homes on Garden Drive and about 25 feet from lot lines in their backyards. It also only included a handful of parking spots.

In response to homeowner concerns, the building was moved about 60 feet from lot lines, and more parking was added.

On Nov. 21, that proposal went to the Rock County Board. Campus officials asked  supervisors to donate four acres for the project. Supervisors were told that without the board's approval that night, the plan could not advance to the UW Board of Regents' Dec. 5 meeting.

The board of regents must approve the plan because the board leases land for the campus from the county. The donation from the county would release the regents from the portion of the lease that includes the four-acre donation.

Once the land is released, the apartments would be built and paid for by the Rock Residential Foundation.

The Rock Residential Foundation hoped to break ground in January and open in time for fall 2014, but without the regents' approval, that wouldn't be possible, officials said.

Homeowners living on Garden Drive presented a petition to the board with more than 30 signatures expressing their disapproval of  the proposed location.

County board members asked Wilson and UW-Rock County Foundation Executive Director Cindy Zaharias why the building could not be located farther from Garden Drive.

Wilson and Zaharias explained that the foundation originally wanted the student apartments to be to behind the engineering building. That would place them farther to the north and west of the Garden Drive homes. However, soil boring on that site showed the presence of concrete, so foundation officials went back to the drawing board.

The location parallel to Garden Drive would be the best use of space and address the residents' parking concerns, and it doesn't have the grade deviation issues present in other parts of the campus, explained Zaharias.

After a long discussion, supervisors voted to donate the four acres but stipulated that both the county's general services committee and the full county board would have to approve the new building's location.

During the discussion, supervisors made it clear that they weren't happy with the proposed location or the speed at which it had to be approved.

APPROVALS AND QUESTIONS

In the days after the Nov. 21 meeting, UW-Rock County Foundation officials changed the site plan for the building. Instead of running north and south, parallel to the back of the Garden Drive homes, the building was “swung around” so it would run east to west, Wilson said in an interview Tuesday. A short stub road would be extended out from Burbank Avenue to the eastern end of the building.

If the regents approve the land donation, the plan will have to go back to the county board and the city of Janesville for approval.

In a memo to the Janesville City Council, acting City Manager Jay Winzenz wrote that the project would require a conditional-use permit and will need a review before the plan commission.

“We know this group is very interested in expediting the project, even though an application or site plan has not been submitted for review,” Winzenz wrote.

Winzenz wrote that there are “definitely storm-water drainage issues.” at the site.

“It's fair to say this project needs to slow down a bit to address building location, size, zoning and compatibility,” Winzenz wrote.

Why wait until what seemed like the last minute to approach the county board with the plan? And why didn't the UW-Rock County Foundation or representatives of the yet-to-be formed Rock Residential Foundation go to the city council with their plans?

“This project has been so dynamic,” Wilson said. “The area we originally looked at (near the engineering building) didn't work out. Then we had a time crunch.”

As for approaching the city, Zaharias said that it didn't make sense to go to the city with plans for land it didn't own yet.

LOCAL IMPACT

A study commissioned more than a year ago showed a market for student housing on campus, Wilson said.

“We're very confident about it,” she said. “We've already had calls asking about how to get on the waiting list.”

Some commuters to the school come from more than an hour away, and that drive becomes even more of a challenge during winter.

In addition, the Janesville School District has been “very supportive” of the project because it would help attract foreign students, Wilson said. Students from China are interested in getting into University of Wisconsin's four-year colleges.

“Ideally, what we would be able to do is a 'two plus one' program with the school district,” Wilson said.

Foreign students would spend their junior years in a Janesville high school. Depending on their skill levels, they could dual-enroll in a high school and at UW-Rock County for their senior years and earn their high school diplomas. Another year at UW-Rock County would give them an associate's degree and a pass into one of the four-year schools.

For Zaharias, student housing will benefit the community, creating a more dynamic campus and boosting the economy.

Housing is also a crucial part of helping UW-Rock remain competitive when students, both foreign and domestic, have an increasing number of educational choices, she said.



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