Neighbors of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul have long lamented that most of its undergraduate students don't live on campus. Two new residence halls planned to start construction this summer aim to change that.
Once completed, half the school's 6,100 undergraduate students will be in on-campus housing. The new dorms' nearly 700 beds — a net gain of 500 — will allow St. Thomas to move toward its goal of housing all freshmen and sophomores on campus.
"It's really not about more revenue. In fact, it's far from that," said Mark Vangsgard, the school's chief financial officer. "Academic achievement by students is better when they are on campus. They have more engagement in co-curricular activities. … They feel more attached to an institution when they live on campus."
The project should also help the school's sometimes-stormy relationship with its neighbors, who have objected to rowdy behavior of students living in off-campus rental housing. Over the years, when St. Thomas has trumpeted the construction of a student center or an athletic complex, neighbors have grumbled that it wasn't housing.
"It's kind of unbelievable," longtime neighbor Joe Reid said about the university's housing news. "It sounds like a good thing, especially getting the younger students on campus."
Noelle Jacquet-Morrison, who has lived near campus for 35 years, called the plan "better than nothing" but worries that St. Thomas will have to bump some older students off-campus to accommodate freshmen and sophomores.
"It will attract more students to live on campus. But is it enough? I don't know," she said. "I think it is progress. But I am cautious."
The residence halls, complete with underground parking for more than 220 cars, will be ready by fall 2020, Vangsgard said.
The $85 million project will be funded using tax-exempt public bonds that will not be repaid by tuition. At the same time the new dorms are going up, St. Thomas will embark on a $30 million renovation of Dowling and Brady halls, two 1960s-era dormitories. That work will be staged over the next two to three summers so that students can live in those dorms during the school year.
Earlier this week, the university announced plans to renovate and expand its century-old Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas. The $13 million project, which will include a multifaith meditation room and a sacred-arts gallery, will house all campus chaplains and will offer space where students of all faiths can participate in spiritual practices. About $11.2 million of the $12.7 million needed for the chapel project has been raised through private donations, the university said.
The chapel and residence hall projects will be the first items to be crossed off a long-range facilities plan approved by the school's board of trustees in November 2016. The plan, if fully realized, would eventually build 14 academic, residential and parking projects over the next decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
For now, St. Thomas' focus is on building enough on-campus housing to accommodate all its freshmen and sophomores, Vangsgard said. That could begin with the freshmen in the fall of 2020. Currently, more than 90 percent of St. Thomas' freshmen live on campus. But only about 40 percent of second-year students do, he said.
The dormitory for first-year students will replace the John Paul II residence hall and will be built just south of Selby Avenue and west of Cleveland Avenue. The new five-story building will feature pods of 15 to 20 double rooms with shared bathrooms and private showers, a dining hall on the first floor and one level of underground parking. The Opus Group will design and build it.
A new hall for second-year students will go where the university's current faculty residence now stands, just south of the chapel. It will be four or five stories tall and have a level of underground parking. It will be designed and built by Ryan Cos.