OU has been good for Norman, but city leaders wonder at what point OU’s actions could negatively affect the city.
OU has been good for Norman, but city leaders wonder at what point OU’s actions could negatively affect the city.
Growing up in Norman, Lynne Miller saw the benefits of having a university as an integral part of town.
Miller watched as her parents attended and connected with OU after World War II, eventually earning a master’s degree in education herself and going on to spend 30 years in the Norman education system, 20 as a middle and high school principal.
Now Norman’s mayor, Miller said she sees the university as a powerhouse, bringing positives and negatives to the Norman area and those who reside here. Miller said she remains optimistic about the relationship between the city and the university, while some residents and community leaders view the two as increasingly having competing goals.
“Everyone has their attitude about the relationship with the university and Norman as a community,” Miller said. “But for me, I grew up in Norman … In my mind, it’s all one piece.”
OU and Norman have been intertwined since the university was founded in 1890 — each supports the other, and they go hand in hand. Still, worries about OU’s expanding footprint bubble underneath the surface of their symbiotic relationship.
Currently, the university is constructing its second upperclassman-oriented residential space, Cross Neighborhood. Set to open in fall 2018 on the south side of campus at West Fourth Street and Asp Avenue, Cross will contain about 1,200 beds for students and roughly 40,000 square feet of retail and “flex” space, according to the property management agreement.
OU is also in discussion with the city about developing the University North Park area, which would be a new entertainment district potentially housing OU basketball and is between Rock Creek and Tecumseh roads, roughly 6 miles north of OU’s main campus.
State budget cuts have pushed the university to stretch its resources, but growth in enrollment has led to the construction of Cross and the opening of the Residential Colleges and Headington Hall, as well as the renovation of the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in the last five years.
As growth is expected to continue, while shopping and entertainment areas are built on university property, a question is emerging — when a campus becomes a city of its own, what are the consequences?
The University of Oklahoma experienced unprecedented growth after World War II ended in 1945, experiencing a 161.7 percent increase in enrollment in fall 1946, according to the OU Fact Book.
Neighborhoods close to campus sprang up, like Hardie-Rucker to the southeast, and schools like Madison Elementary were used to accommodate the influx of GI Bill recipients coming to school with families in tow.
Since then, enrollment at OU’s Norman Campus has grown to roughly 28,000 students, almost 18,000 more students than in 1946, according to the OU Fact Book and a report by OU Institutional Research and Reporting.
Nick Hathaway, OU’s vice president of administration and finance, said the university strives to be a good neighbor to the city so there are perks of coming to Norman for those the university tries to recruit.
“Our success is intertwined with Norman’s success, and so we want Norman to be everything that it can be,” Hathaway said. “We always want to make sure things are square deals, where we aren’t taking advantage or striking an arrangement that is to the city’s detriment, because we want things that are to the benefit of both the university and the city.”
Miller said the university has been an agent for good — it’s Norman’s biggest employer, drawing a diverse pool of professors, researchers and students, as well as creating community institutions like the National Weather Center and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
“Because of that, they are the biggest part of our economic engine,” Miller said. “What would Norman be if we didn’t have the university?”
But there are issues, Miller said, pointing to Norman’s housing market, which has been inflated in recent years with the creation of additional on-campus student living like the Residential Colleges and large, mainly student-filled apartment complexes such as Callaway House, which is one of the closest privately owned, off-campus housing available.
These new options range in price, but they can be more expensive per person than traditional rental homes around campus — some as low as a few hundred dollars more per month to almost a thousand dollars more per month. Still, some students are forgoing the cheaper options and moving into these new spaces, leaving rental houses empty all over the city, said Susan Connors, Norman’s planning and community development director.
If these cheaper rental properties are left unoccupied and eventually go away, students may be pushed to live in the more expensive university housing, Miller said. Either way, a disruption of where students and Norman’s low-income population are located is occurring, Connors said.
“I think these new dormitories and housing options will affect the housing market greatly, but it’s really new — maybe too new to know the long-term effects — but it may push those property owners to redevelop the properties,” Connors said. “This will push people out into different neighborhoods, whether those are students or just lower-income individuals. The increase of students who usually pay a higher price for renting affects our low-income residents and their options of where to live.”
Miller said the prices for those living in new campus buildings are serious financial obligations that not all can afford. Additionally, OU has increased tuition by 16.8 percent since 2015 to deal with less state funding, according to previous OU Daily articles.
In addition to tuition increases, the percentage of OU students who are from out-of-state — a group that pays thousands more per year than in-state students — has been growing.
Between 1994 and 2007, the out-of-state student population increased by 53.7 percent, according to data from OU Institutional Research and Reporting, obtained through an email from OU press secretary Matt Epting. For the current academic year, out-of-state students are paying $15,381 more than in-state students for tuition and fees, according to OU’s bursar website.
“What the university does in terms of housing affects Norman’s economy, but my other concern is out-pricing students, so students can’t afford to go to college here,” Miller said. “(OU has) gone slow with buying properties, so I think they’ve been careful about that, but I worry about there not being enough moderately priced living situations for students and others.”
State cuts to higher education funding have forced universities to raise tuition and cut staff, meaning institutions must get creative with the revenue they do have.
Miller said this could play a part in some of OU’s recent residential additions, as well as the decision to sell off and develop land owned by the OU Foundation for the University North Park development.
“OU has not done this level of student housing building, but for the last few years … ” Miller said. “The university may be a little more aggressive right now about their plans, but part of the problem is that everyone is struggling for funding, so it pushes people to try everything they can do.”
However, since OU is a state-owned institution, the land it buys and develops is exempt from property taxes and zoning regulations, Connors said. The university is not required to and doesn’t always reveal the plans for these purchases to the city, but these purchases pull property taxes out of funds for things like public schools at small amounts, Miller said.
“They don’t have to tell us about their buying habits,” Miller said. “It’s similar to other developers, but we’ve had community reaction to things that the university wanted to do, but the big company gets more say than the downtown mom and pop shop, and that’s kind of reality.”
But beyond buildings used just as residential space will be Cross, which will house dining, theater and performance venues and a coffee shop, among other things, Hathaway said.
The amenities are meant to entice upperclassmen to stay on campus longer, Hathaway said. It could also potentially encourage OU students to spend their money on campus rather than in the broader Norman community, said Cleveland County Assessor Doug Warr.
“If it’s a similar type of business, especially to what is on Campus Corner, then that might have an impact on those existing businesses — time will tell,” Warr said.
Creating a new residential and commercial market on a university campus is not unique to OU, said Kate Rousmaniere of Oxford, Ohio, where she is mayor and a professor at Miami University.
Rousmaniere is a member of the International Town and Gown Association, an organization that holds conferences and provides resources to cities and universities that face issues while working together, according to the ITGA website. She said that universities in Ohio have been using this same method of buying residential space for university functions, as well as adding in their own stores and restaurants, taking away from city business.
“Our campus has more stores and food options and Starbucks than the town, so people aren’t going to town,” Rousmaniere said. “So there is a competition issue — if the university opens its own store, what happens to the independently owned store across town?”
Miller said the looming choice of who the next university president will be has left many unsure of what that relationship will look like in the future.
OU President David Boren, who has headed the university since 1994 and left a celebrated legacy, announced his retirement in September.
Regardless, Rousmaniere said, the fact remains that large universities have heavy influence in the areas they are located in.
“While many towns wouldn’t exist without their universities, sometimes towns are hostage to what their universities want to do,” Rousmaniere said.
OU and the City of Norman have partnered on various projects in the past and are currently in negotiations for the University North Park development, but Miller said planning has gone fairly smooth so far.
“The university may be being more aggressive in their desire to get this done, but I don’t feel like we’re being strong-armed or pressured,” Miller said. “We have so many positive relationships with OU, and we do work together, but yes, they have a lot of power.”
To navigate this balance, city and university leaders have participated in ITGA conferences or created joint city-university committees to discuss future plans and current issues, Rousmaniere said.
OU expansions are likely to impact Norman’s housing market and low-income population, Miller said. But because of the long-term nature of the projects and recent land acquisitions, it is unknown what impact they will have overall, Hathaway said.
“We’re acquiring land, thinking that the university will need more space to continue to be what it is, but I think some of it is that we’re all limited on what our understanding of the future might be,” Hathaway said.
This story is the first in a series of three about the Hardie-Rucker neighborhood, which will have to shrink as OU expands.
In part two of our series: As OU has torn down residential space, Madison Elementary School’s low-income population has increased.
In the third part of our series: OU tries to be a good neighbor to Norman, but as it expands into city-owned property, there may be issues.