Sheppard Pratt joins college housing trend

Student apartments being built on campus of psychiatric hospital

May 03, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In its colorful brochures, the new University Village apartment complex in Towson boasts everything today's college student could want: ethernet access, a heated swimming pool, saunas, tanning beds, a gym and a game room.

But the complex's brochures make no mention of its most striking feature: an up-close view of a world-renowned psychiatric hospital.

In one of the more unusual examples of a trend toward privately owned student dormitories, Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital is leasing land for the construction of University Village, a 615-resident apartment complex for students from adjacent Towson University and other area colleges.

The complex, which will open in August, faces Sheppard Pratt's 170-bed acute inpatient ward, with about 200 feet of lawn between them.

Sheppard Pratt officials say they know of no precedent for housing college students so close to the mentally ill. But hospital officials are confident the conjunction will be a success for all involved: Sheppard Pratt will bring in about $500,000 a year to put toward its programs, while students will have another option in a crowded housing market.

In the process, the project could help reduce some of the stigmas around mental illness, said Bonnie Katz, Sheppard Pratt's vice president for corporate business development.

"There's a realization that the same campus can serve as housing for students pursuing an education and patients getting help for psychiatric conditions," Katz said. "There would have been a time when no one would have considered having both of those things happen at the same place."

Students who have reserved apartments at the complex are equally upbeat about it - less because they are reconciled to the idea of living near psychiatric patients than that they haven't given it much thought. What they are looking forward to, students said, are University Village's amenities.

"It's brand new and really nice. The pool room is going to be cool, and the heated pool is a great feature," said Kevin Selekof, a Towson sophomore from Columbia who will be moving in with three classmates.

As for the hospital, he said, "It's not going to be on anyone's mind. It's not like it's that bad to look at. I'll just pass by it every day and not give it a thought."

Other students said they were staying away from University Village, but because of its cost, not because of its location. Rent at the complex, which will be managed by the national company American Campus Communities, ranges from $530 a month for a private room in a four-bedroom unit to $645 for a one-bedroom unit. On-campus rooms cost $1,835 per four-month semester.

"I really wanted to be there, if it weren't so expensive," said Ashley Hudak, a freshman from Columbia. "It's not like people would be coming out of the hospital attacking us."

University Village is part of a nationwide trend toward privately managed student housing being built on or near college campuses. By leaving the construction of dorms to for-profit companies, colleges keep building costs off their debt load.

In Maryland, public colleges are limited to using student housing fees, and not capital funds, to pay for dormitories, and many have turned to private partnerships. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has 1,250 beds in privately owned dorms on campus, while the University of Maryland, College Park has nearly 2,000 beds in two privately owned complexes, with 600 more on the way.

"For us and others across the country, to build multimillion-dollar housing structures can be quite a burden," said Jerome T. Dieringer, Towson's director of housing.

As of this week, 303 of the 615 beds in University Village were reserved, including all of the one- and two-bedroom apartments. The vast majority of the tenants are students at Towson, which is a 15-minute walk from the Sheppard Pratt campus.

Dieringer said Towson encouraged the building of University Village but has no stake in the project. The 16,000-student university has a waiting list for its 3,800 on-campus beds, which include 400 at privately managed Millennium Hall.

With the baby boom echo hitting the campus, he said, Towson recognizes it needs more rooms. But the campus has little room to build on - which is one reason the university gave for recently buying a presidential mansion five miles away rather than building one on campus.

Katz said University Village is part of Sheppard Pratt's push to open its 100-acre, 111-year-old campus to the public and bring in some extra revenue in the process. The hospital leases space to Greater Baltimore Medical Center for Lamaze classes and other programs and plays host to events at its conference center.

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