Nuisance neighborhood: City government looks to redevelop student neighborhood after complaints
In a perfect world, no one would be able to tell the difference between student dwellings and the homes of Mount Pleasant residents. Both groups would coexist without conflict and City Manager Nancy Ridley wouldn’t receive any complaints about trash or a party that continues late into the night.
Unfortunately for Ridley, she heard plenty from Mount Pleasant residents this summer.
While most of Central Michigan University's student population returned home or left Mount Pleasant for internship opportunities, complaints about numerous nuisance violations – like citations for parking, litter and noise – were made by residents at city commission meetings.
Because the party atmosphere near the downtown has intensified in recent years, City Commissioner Kathy Ling said students have become a frequent concern of constituents.
"It hasn't always been a topic of conversation, but it has been a very intense topic in the last couple of years," Ling said. "A solution needs to be mutually agreed upon. I think it's unfortunate that all this was happening when the students weren't here, because I think they're a key part of the problem."
During those meetings big changes were approved by the city commission that will affect students – including hiring an additional code enforcement officer to police a student-populated area known as the M-2 district.
The code enforcement officer inspects properties in the neighborhood, looking for code violations, including trash, parking issues and indoor furniture placed outside. The officer will post a notice on residents' doors with a time the issue needs to be corrected. If it's not fixed by that time, the city will issue a fine. On the first offense, each resident is charged $50. These fines can go up to $250.
Those decisions were reached during the time of the year most students weren't able to participate in those discussions, while city officials also lamented not having an effective way to communicate with CMU’s off-campus population. Among other changes, the Mount Pleasant City Commission made amendments to its solid waste program and added a neighborhood recycling program.
The town and gown relationship in Mount Pleasant has had its ups and downs. Student behavior, unfortunately, has always been a concern.
Changing neighborhoods, growing community
Almost 30 years before most of this year’s freshmen class was born, the legal drinking age had just been restored to 21. This change in state law helped usher student partying out of bars and onto the streets north of campus. Students organized "End of the World" parties, which usually were scheduled the weekend after final exams. In the 1980s, one of these parties caused $7,800 of damage to the city and resulted in 55 arrests.
"There was a period of time where there were massive numbers of students in the streets, with heavy drinking and lots of other problems," Ling said. "There was a very significant (police) response to that. That did bring it under control for a period of time."
At the same time, student housing expanded in that area.
"Central and Mount Pleasant grew up together," Ling said. "That was the point where there also started to be a fair amount of conversion from residential homes to student rentals on Washington and Main (streets). The area really began to change."
Today, Mount Pleasant is made up of almost two-thirds rental properties. There are no longer “End of the World” parties, but many city officials fear student activity could return to that level when CMU was cited nationally as a “party school.” This lead to the proposal of amendments that could drastically change the M-2 district.
Since 2009, the city commission has discussed redeveloping the area, creating a "buffer zone" between student and residential housing. After a public hearing on Sept. 28, redevelopment could become a reality.
Ling divided the changes into two goals: Get partying under control and have a transitional area between the M-2 and single-family zone R-3.
"The immediate issue is making sure people are safe," she said. "The transitional zone is part of the solution."
A change in ordinance would make it so a M-2 lot could not have a common line with or be located across the street or alley from any lot in R. Lots that share a property line would not be allowed to have more than four occupants. The only way a Greek house could be near a home in the R district is if the two homes are across a major street from each other.
Preserving the look and feel of the area is also a goal of the commission. Improving aesthetics, functions for trash pickup and decreasing front yard parking were also highly discussed throughout the summer.
Creating a transitional zone would separate students and residents, putting less-populated dwellings in between them.
"There are just things that don't go well together," she said. "That doesn't mean there's one good and one bad. There are some people that wouldn't want to live in that transitional area because they wouldn't want to be that close to the partying and the noise, but young faculty or graduate students may find it less of a problem."
Because there is an abundance of rental properties, the area north of campus is where many students reside. As more and more students move into that area, residents are pushed farther north if they can't deal with the atmosphere.
Some students have heard complaints from their neighbors about the level of noise into early hours of the morning. Novi sophomore Michael Halvorsen said he understands their frustration, but also believes residents should have realistic expectations of their young neighbors.
"When you live somewhere like this, there's going to be noise and there's going to be trash," Halvorsen said.
Discussions on student partying often follow the calendar year, Ling said. In the past few years, out-of-control parties late in the spring semester have become more of an issue for city officials and neighbors in the months that follow.
"The increase in the number of fires, for example, is really a new phenomenon in the last few years," she said.
In April 2014, the city commission passed an emergency fire ordinance after several fires were started in dumpsters by students. Ling said she has received many phone calls about the volume level, continuing until 2 or 3 a.m. some nights.
Students urinating on lawns, wandering into local resident’s houses and littering were some of the complaints Ling said she received from constituents.
As more residential homes were converted into student-rentals, Ling said the neighborhood's atmosphere shifted. She recalled the story of a friend who raised his family in a house on South Main Street, until his student neighbors became too much to live with.
"He sold his house 10 or 15 years after I moved here in 1971, because that's when the neighborhood changed," she said. "It just reached a point where you couldn't live there anymore. That's why some of those people who are in the surrounding areas – who want to continue to live there – are concerned about the boundaries.
“How are we going to make sure that all of us can live together?"
CMU and the city work together to address destructive student behavior while also trying to create an atmosphere where students and residents can coexist.
Bad behavior off campus can impact a student’s life on campus. When a criminal case involving students is making its way through Isabella County courts, Director of Student Affairs Shaun Holtgreive explained that the university is notified and the student is referred to the Office of Student Conduct.
"If it's a severe situation, the university will also charge that student. They may be removed from Central," Holtgrieve said. "Once (court cases) are completed, we'll get a list and if there are students with severe infractions, there will be follow-up with student conduct. People who live in that area know that."
More and more students are finding themselves referred to the Office of Student Conduct for disciplinary action by police, said Mount Pleasant Police Department Officer Jeff Browne.
"We refer individual reports to the university--and it's more than ever before," Browne said. "For example, there was an arson last year involving six CMU students, so we turned (those) reports over. We do this for serious ones, ones that pose a threat to the university community."
Twice a year, city and university staff walk through student neighborhoods, informing them of expectations, including law enforcement and code violations.
Oxford senior Arin Bisaro received one of these visits at the beginning of this semester. He said the city should try to do this more often, especially since big changes were made during the summer.
"It's good to inform students over the summer, but then the other 19,000 come back and don't know about the changes," he said. "I know there are really tight restrictions on (trash). It would be really helpful if they put notices on our doors to tell us about the changes, or send an email out to our landlords. It was good when the police walked around before Welcome Weekend and told us what to expect. They should do that with the other changes. No one wants to get a citation."
Ridley said the city communicates with students using the same methods it uses to communicate with homeowners. City officials send quarterly newsletters in the mail and post a monthly electronic newsletter on Mount Pleasant's website.
"Traditionally, we haven't had a targeted communication for just students," she said. "We have been working with CMU more on that. Sometimes they will report some of our messages in the emails they send out to students.”
Making your voice heard
"Students are here for basically eight months of the year. We try to think of students as members of our community – They're just part-time members is all,” Ridley said. “Most of us were students at one time. We value that relationship, but there's always going to be tension."
Ridley wants to hear more from students. In the early '90s, a city/CMU student liaison committee was created, then met less and less. City commissioners are working on revitalizing that, having the group meet more frequently to maintain an open dialogue between students, university staff, residents, law enforcement and city staff. However, applications for the committee closed on Aug. 31, just after most students returned to Mount Pleasant.
Of paramount concern is that students behave as responsible members of the city, said Holtgrieve, who serves as a member of the liaison committee between the city and CMU. He also served on the Mount Pleasant Planning Commission for nine years.
This includes students taking advantage of volunteer opportunities and participating in governmental decisions by attending city commission meetings or taking their concerns about the recent code enforcement changes and receiving excessive citations to City Hall.
"Democracy only works when people participate. That's a process where there's public input sought in stages. Unfortunately, the input doesn't always come when it's most effective,” Holtgreive said. “We have discussions when emotions are involved, instead of having a very level conversation.
“The people in the neighborhood are involved, but students aren't involved as much as they could be. It's important for students to hear how much they affect people that live there."