Donn Esmonde: University Heights needs UB to step up
The recent rash of violence around UB’s South Campus brought it all back for me: the school’s broken promise over the last decade to invest in —and to stabilize—the surrounding University Heights neighborhood.
If anything should spur UB to revisit the plan, it is last month’s shooting death of model student Javon Jackson the night after his graduation.
Banks, corporations and politicians in the mid-1990s were in place with UB to buy, renovate and resell more than 100 homes. UB never pulled the trigger.
The idea was to retrace the footprint that UB had in the ’70s, when it owned many houses—and had its campus police station—on nearby Winspear Avenue. Then-President Bill Greiner of UB abandoned a limp ’90s housing effort after redoing a half-dozen homes—at the same time UB was building reams of student housing at its isolated North Campus in Amherst.
Activists hoped that new President John Simpson’s UB 2020 plan would include a University Heights housing piece. Instead, it was the missing piece of a worthy 2020 vision that will—among other things—deepen the university’s downtown footprint and buck up its South Campus academics. But it does little to deal with the fraying University Heights neighborhood and the glut of absentee landlords and trolling street thugs.
Dozens of urban colleges—as close as Canisius and as distant as USC—extended their reach into surrounding streets. Whether fueled by altruism or self-interest, it makes sense for schools to reach into neighborhood housing—for student safety, and to avoid the enrollment- killing reputation that crime brings.
Police say crime in University Heights is down. But the last year saw several high-profile student rapes and beatings, a homeowner’s shooting and— last month—the shooting death of Jackson and a UB student’s brother.
Jackson’s tragedy should prompt UB officials to stop dipping their toe into the neighborhood and dive in. A similar tragedy prompted Milwaukee’s Marquette University to get off the dime a decade ago. Half steps such as UB’s employee housing incentives and task forces do not get it done.
“It was the right thing to do back then,” said Kevin Helfer, “and it is the right thing to do now. . . . I think it should be part of their core mission.”
As University Heights member of the Common Council in the ’90s, Helfer helped to craft the buy-rehab-sell housing plan that UB never launched. He said that it “would not be that hard” for UB to do it. Neighborhood residents have bought and rehabbed a handful of houses, but nothing on the scale UB could bring. Along with building a city at the Amherst campus, UB could prop up the one that already exists along Main Street.
“It is in their self-interest to stabilize the neighborhood,” Helfer said. “If they do not invest in the community and the housing stock, what we have now will just perpetuate. . . . Think of where we would be now if they had [started] 15 years ago.”
The lack of UB-controlled housing did not cause the recent violence. But stable neighborhoods smother crime.
UB’s vice president for student affairs, Dennis Black, said the focus is on adding to the mature mix of grad students and faculty in University Heights.
“I don’t know of much conversation going on [at UB] about us getting back into the buy-rehab-sell business,” Black said. “There is not much talk of us as a developer.”
Maybe it is time for the talk to start. The neighborhood—and its problems— are not going away. Unless UB finally decides to step beyond the fence, I think the next 15 years will look a lot like the last 15.