Town hall audiences ask questions, criticize Washington Commons project

A digital rendering of the Washington Commons project previews the design of the residence halls, Feb. 24 in the French Auditorium. The image was part of a slideshow presentation given at the start of the town hall meetings.

Panels of Central Michigan University leaders gave presentations and answered questions about the proposed Washington Commons project during two town hall meetings.

Many audience members were concerned about safety, parking, location and other issues associated with the project. 

Students, faculty, staff and community members came to the meetings—both in-person and virtual—to voice questions and concerns about how the project will affect CMU and Mount Pleasant. The first session was at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 24 in the French Auditorium and the second was at 4 p.m. March 2 in Plactha Auditorium.

Nick Long, vice president for Finance and Administrative Services, said the purpose of the town halls was to explain and “dispel some of the things that are inaccurate about the project.” 

After a presentation describing the project, audience members were invited to ask questions and share concerns in-person or via the livestream’s discussion. 

The proposed project would demolish Lot 22 and build a new residence hall in its place, costing $135 million, Long said. Director of Residence Life Kathleen Gardner said a goal of the new living space is to improve CMU’s declining enrollment amidst increasing competition for new students in Michigan. 

“When a student comes here, they’re obviously going to visualize what their first year is,” Long said. “They should also be able to visualize what it’s like in the second year, third year, fourth year. We want to provide that perspective so when they move in here as a first-year student, they also have that level of confidence about what the next four years are going to be like.”

Juniors, seniors and transfer students will have the option to live in Washington Commons, Gardner said. She said those students would not be required to live there, however, because the two-year residency requirement will not change. Some audience members questioned whether upperclassmen would want to live in the new hall.

“I think this is a bunch of bulls---,” a junior said at the March 2 town hall. “The number one thing I wanted to do, and all of my friends wanted to do when we got here, was get the hell off of campus. I would never want to live on campus again and I can definitely say that for most of the juniors and seniors. Why? Price point. Usually, we don’t have any money.”

Gardner said the room prices at Washington Commons have not been set yet. Gardner did add they will be more expensive than a semester at Northwest Apartments, which will be $2,291 for a two-bed unit and $3,125 for a one-bed unit in Fall 2022.  

Some audience members were concerned that on-campus housing cannot compete with the prices of off-campus apartments. Gardner said premium halls like Celani and Fabiano are some of the quickest to fill. Rooms in Northwest Apartments “sell out within minutes,” according to Long.

Washington Commons would also replace 412 of the beds lost by the future demolition of Kewadin Village and Northwest Apartments, Gardner said, which have “critical issues with the infrastructure.” Electrical, plumbing and accessibility issues were listed.

Local business owner Michael Kostrzewa asked at the March 2 town hall how the project would affect Mount Pleasant. As a resident since 1960, Kostrzewa said he has seen the city change along with CMU.

“One thing I see is right across your beautiful commons here, is 250 yards of abandoned buildings,” Kostrzewa. “Is this project somehow going to enliven the feeling you get when you go to the North edge of campus and look at the most beautiful part of your campus?” 

Kostrzewa suggested that CMU “inject some capital” into Mount Pleasant to enliven North campus. He said he has two daughters who attend college in New York City and San Francisco. 

“A cool city, a city with charisma with a vibrant downtown will help CMU attract and retain students,” Kostrzewa said. “I don’t care if you build the Taj Mahal here, (students) are not coming back here. (My daughters) live in little hovels. They love New York, they love San Francisco. Those are cool towns.”      

Long agreed with Kostrzewa that CMU and Mount Pleasant have a “symbiotic relationship.”  Gardner said there are reasons upperclassmen might want to stay on campus. 

“We lost a lot of our upper class students because we don’t have the right housing facilities for them,” Gardner said. “There’s value in having our upper class students on campus. It’s about having older students to serve as peer mentors, to role model. 

“We also know that students who live on campus are more likely to graduate in four years, have higher GPAs, and are more likely to be engaged outside of the classroom. When we have students living off-campus, it’s hard to achieve that level of engagement.”

A faculty member at the March 2 town hall said off-campus students are still engaged with the residential experience. 

“We talk about these students who use Lot 22 and we use the word commuters,” the faculty member said. “I think it’s really important to consider that a vast majority of these students live within a mile or so off campus. 

“They go to our RSOs, exercise in the SAC, support the Chips at their athletic events, study in the library, attend public talks in Warriner, plays in Moore, concerts in the Music Building. They are residential students in every respect except that they don’t walk to campus.”

Many at the town halls, including the faculty member, had questions and concerns about how parking will change with the removal of Lot 22’s popular faculty, staff and commuter parking spaces.

A field south of Broomfield Street, currently used as overflow parking for events, will be paved as a part of the plan. The new Lot 75 would be an alternative option to parking in Lot 22. Audience members were concerned about the safety of walking a further distance to and from the lot. 

“As a woman, I don’t want to walk further than I have to at night just to get back to my car,” an audience member said.

Central Michigan University Police Chief Larry Klaus said the routes between Lot 75 and academic buildings are monitored by cameras for safety.  

“If something just doesn’t quite look right or instincts are telling you something might be awry, call us,” Klaus said. We’ll send a car over to make sure you get to where you need to be safely. That’s what we’re here for. I repeatedly hear, ‘I don’t want to bother the police.’ Please bother us.”

Some audience members also said crossing Broomfield Street is different than crossing Washington Street and adds another layer of danger to Lot 75’s location. 

Long said a pedestrian bridge over Broomfield is “not outside of the realm of possibilities.” The bridge would be an expensive challenge, Long said, because it would need to be tall enough for trucks underneath it and strong enough to support snow removal vehicles.       

Others were worried about a shortage of parking spaces without Lot 22. Interim Provost Richard Rothaus said Lot 75 is not a replacement for Lot 22 because it will be mainly used for overflow parking. Instead, commuter, faculty and staff parking will be spread out to other commuter lots.

The faculty member at the March 2 town hall said removing Lot 22 will force drivers, especially students, to compete for parking spots in smaller lots.

“Students who are going to not want to park in Lot 75 are going to be looking around, circling at these other (parking lots)," the faculty member said. “Some of them will find spots, some of them won’t. The ones who won’t are going to have to barrel over to Lot 75, further increasing the danger there.

“We’ve had students raise concern about the safety issues walking that long walk at night. I’m a big fan of the CMU police, but CMU police can’t be everywhere all the time. All the lights and all the cameras don’t change the fundamental fact that a longer walk at night is more hazardous than a shorter walk at night.”  

According to Klaus, there are currently “more commuter parking spots than we have cars to park in them.” He said CMU needs to do a better job of telling people where they can park.

At the March 1 Academic Senate meeting, Rothaus said feedback about the Washington Commons project can be sent to 

Long said Faculty Association President Amanda Garrison contacted him on Feb. 24 requesting a third town hall to accommodate anyone not able to make the first two. Long did not say if another session will occur, but he said he asked Garrison to suggest more times slots.