Days after Kristina Lemon and her wife moved into their house near the University of St. Thomas, she watched a mostly naked young man "with a keg, running down the alley." It hasn't gotten much better since, she said.
"It's exhausting," Lemon said after several years living near the state's largest private university.
As St. Thomas plots its future growth and building needs, Lemon's frustration with the university's recently approved long-range facilities plan highlights a complex and sometimes prickly relationship between the university and its neighbors — one that stems from decades of neighbors pleading for more on-campus housing while also dealing with off-campus student behavior, increasing traffic and related issues.
In November, St. Thomas' board of trustees approved a plan that, if fully realized at a cost estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, would build 14 academic, residential and parking projects over the next decade. The plan currently includes no timeline, but St. Thomas officials say details about what gets built first probably will come this year as the university gauges which projects grab donor interest and how much borrowing St. Thomas can sustain. To some neighbors, that answer falls short.
"They haven't lived up to their promises," said Alyssa Rebensdorf, an attorney who lives two blocks south of St. Thomas' main St. Paul campus. She points to another plan, from 2004, in which the university intended to build a "residential village" and eventually move to housing 60 percent of St. Thomas students on campus. Today, that number is 43 percent.
School is trying
Yet other neighbors seem willing to cut the university some slack in its efforts to squeeze as many of the school's 6,111 undergraduate students onto campus as possible.
Nearby residents Cathy Plessner and Noelle Jacquet-Morrison say the university's plan is a sincere effort to address neighbor concerns while balancing the school's needs.
"St. Thomas is trying," Jacquet-Morrison said of the plan. "Some pieces are not adequate and housing is one of the biggest challenges. But there has been animosity over the past 30 years and some neighbors haven't been able to move on from that."
Said Plessner: "It's a complex issue."
'Lots of moving parts'
It's not the first time St. Thomas has revealed long-range plans, said Doug Hennes, the university's vice president for government relations and special projects. And it wouldn't be the first time that not everything on the map came to fruition.
For example, a 2004 plan to create a residential village on two blocks between Summit and Grand avenues never happened — a sore spot for neighbors, he acknowledges.
"It was something we hoped to do," Hennes said. "But circumstances change."
St. Thomas' new plan proposes adding 215,000 square feet of academic and administrative space, renovating another 137,000 square feet for academics and administration, adding 437 new on-campus beds and creating 631 new parking spaces.
On the north campus, St. Thomas would build two new residence halls, renovate 105-year-old Ireland Hall into apartment-style housing, put an addition onto the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas and renovate the Murray-Herrick Campus Center for academic use.
On two blocks between Summit and Grand avenues, a new arts building with underground parking is planned, as are two new Grand Avenue apartment residences.
And on the south campus, St. Thomas would build a third science building and relocate and renovate Loras Hall, built in 1894. It would also add two levels of parking to the Anderson Parking Facility. The new science building would house a booming undergraduate engineering program, Hennes said.
Adding on-campus housing is a priority, Hennes said. If all the proposed facilities are built, more than half of St. Thomas undergrads would live on campus. But that doesn't mean student housing will go up first.
St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said there are "lots of moving parts" in such a facilities plan and the university wants to be sure it gets it right.
"You can only build on that space once," she said.
While more on-campus housing is important, she said she doesn't want to pay for it by increasing the cost of a St. Thomas education. The next step for the overall plan, Sullivan said, is to assess fundraising prospects and find out what potential donors are "most excited about."
Noise, parties, drinking
That stance chafes neighbors who say the university hasn't done enough to alleviate student noise, house parties, drinking and property damage related to off-campus housing.
Jack Mills, who moved into his house at the north end of campus in 1982, said he chose this neighborhood because of the ambience of a "small liberal arts college." It is that no longer.
He agrees that more on-campus housing is needed. He just doesn't want to see it on the north campus. Student traffic has made Selby Avenue a continual headache, he said.
"Neighbors have said for years: 'Don't put any more students up at this end,' " Mills said. "Let's spread stuff out.' "
"But," he added, "Basically, we weren't listened to."
Rebensdorf said trust has been lost because of university inaction on housing.
"They had a golden opportunity to build trust by simply saying, 'We heard you … and our first building will be student housing,' " she said.
While Mills and Rebensdorf say the relationship with the university has become strained over the years, others credit St. Thomas with working to build stronger ties.
A neighborhood liaison works to address issues that pop up in off-campus student housing and the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee was established by the City Council in 2004 to bring the university and neighbors together to address common issues.
Plessner, whose husband graduated from St. Thomas in 1973 (she graduated from nearby St. Catherine University in 1974), has lived near campus ever since. Their children attended St. Thomas. They also own two area properties rented by St. Thomas students.
St. Thomas has been a good neighbor, Plessner said.
"They are open to hearing what the neighbors want," Plessner said. "And it's almost universal that neighbors want the first shovel to be for student housing."
Then she added: "But they have many constituencies. It's a juggling act."