The Student Life Village looks like a grand place for Virginia Tech students to live. Space for 5,000 residents. Restaurants and recreation facilities within walking distance. Expansive green spaces and even a chapel for relaxation and quiet reflection. Bike paths and walking trails. Buildings that run on renewable energy. A rescue squad.
All right on campus — if it’s ever built, that is.
Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors will consider adding the bold, nearly $1 billion Student Life Village project to the university’s master plan during the board’s Sunday meeting in Blacksburg. The project, which is essentially a large student-housing and retail community operated by the university on campus, has been hailed for its innovative ideas and is supported by town officials who want Tech to house more students on campus. Virginia Tech’s recent growth to more than 30,000 undergraduate students has strained town services and caused a housing crunch that has pushed families and other residents out of Blacksburg, town leaders say.
However, the project frays the nerves of some local residential developers, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in student housing construction in recent years to handle Tech’s explosive growth. They worry that the Student Life Village could leave their apartment complexes vacant, especially if that enrollment growth stalls. They think downtown businesses will also suffer because of the amenities the project provides.
“My concern is that if 5,000 beds are added [on campus], and there’s not growth, we will have many vacancies,” said Joann Craig, chief financial officer for Blacksburg-based CMG Leasing, Inc., which owns housing properties throughout the New River Valley. “It won’t be a pretty picture.”
The town’s support of the project is clear, said longtime Town Manager Marc Verniel.
“Our position is that if Virginia Tech continues to grow its undergraduate enrollment, they need to provide more housing, recreation, dining for their students and other amenities on campus,” he said.
Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith reiterated that position in a letter to Tech President Timothy Sands dated Oct. 28.
“Since less than a third of Virginia Tech students live on campus, it is past time for the university to make the same commitment that Blacksburg has by centering students in its long-term plans,” Hager-Smith wrote. “If Virginia Tech is going to continue to grow, the Student Life Village is necessary.”
Hager-Smith added that Tech’s growth outpaced student-housing construction, causing home prices and rents to soar.
“This increased competition drove up rents and housing prices, effectively pricing out local residents and prospective newcomers,” Hager-Smith wrote.
Rents and home values in Blacksburg are considerably higher than in other neighboring communities. The median home value in Blacksburg is $400,000, according to Long & Foster Real Estate, compared to an average of $138,228 in the rest of Montgomery County. Nest Realty’s 2022 mid-year report for the New River Valley lists an even higher average sale price for Blacksburg — $473,068.
The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Blacksburg has risen 41 percent in the past year, according to online rental marketplace tracker Rent.com, up to nearly $1,500. A one-bedroom apartment averages $1,080 (up 19 percent) and three-bedrooms go for $1,780 (a 9 percent increase).
Most of Blacksburg’s population of about 50,000 are students. The town’s economy relies on the university and student spending, including housing. But town leaders want to ease the burden on infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, and reduce sprawl caused by increased off-campus housing.
“We’ve added a lot of student housing in town,” Verniel said. “If the university continues to grow, the best place for students is to live close to class, close to dining. They will be able to walk or bike or scooter, or whatever transportation they take these days, to class.”
Virginia Tech’s expansion is no secret to anyone who has tried to navigate busy streets near campus and along Prices Fork Road, which has seen commercial and residential expansion in recent years. The university has added about 5,000 students over the past five years. In 2019, the size of the freshman class exceeded expectations by nearly 1,000 students, which forced the university to house about 500 new students in hotels due to a lack of adequate housing.
That prompted town officials and developers to work together to increase student-housing options. Craig estimated that developers have spent nearly $400 million on new projects and renovations in five years. She worries that those investments could be at risk should Tech’s on-campus housing increase and its enrollment stops growing.
“These are huge investments,” she said. “Because Tech was growing, the town said we need beds [for students]. People put a lot of money into that. Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen” regarding Tech’s future growth.
About five years ago, Virginia Tech set a goal of achieving an enrollment of 30,000 by 2023, then hit that mark three years early. Sands has said that future growth would be determined by whether or not the university and town could handle more students.
In 2019, he posted on Twitter that enrollment would be capped at 30,000 “until VT and Blacksburg infrastructure is in place. Will reassess then.”
Virginia Tech’s master plan, adopted in 2018, calls for mixed-use districts on campus, new buildings, better accessibility across campus and possibly expanding housing. During its two-day meeting that begins Sunday, the Board of Visitors will consider adding the Student Life Village project to the master plan.
The village concept was unveiled last spring by former Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok, who is now the president of Roanoke College. According to a Virginia Tech news release from May, Shushok proposed to the Board of Visitors a project that would encompass “residential, well-being, recreation, dining and enrichment spaces for up to 5,000 students on campus. The plan will focus on integrated, high-quality student-life offerings as well as living-learning programs, amenities and public spaces to serve both on- and off-campus students.”
The project would be constructed on the current Virginia Tech Golf Course and Oak Lane student housing property, and will include dormitory-style rooms, as well as 2-and-3-bedroom apartments and suites. A mix of local and national chain restaurants, indoor recreation facilities and other amenities are planned. Students would pay for housing, although prices have not been determined.
Even though the project can house 5,000 students, Tech also plans to raze two dormitories that currently hold about 1,300 people, which means the Student Life Village would add about 3,700 or so new beds to campus.
The project would be built in three phases, with a total price tag of $935 million, according to documents filed with the Board of Visitors.
However, even if the board adopts the project, it doesn’t mean the village will ever be built. Funding and other approvals await, said Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski.
Owczarski, Tech’s associate vice president for communications and marketing, wrote in an email to Cardinal News that the Student Life Village “is a proposal. An idea. Not set in stone; may or may not ever happen. To be adopted, it needs to go through university governance for approval and adoption.”
In other words, even if the board passes the resolution to include the project in the university’s master plan, construction may still be years down the road.
Developers hope to use that time to get a clearer picture of Tech’s plans for growth and the town’s housing needs. The announcement of the Student Life Village last spring seems to have caught some developers off-guard, and now they want to make sure they stay apprised of the university’s plans.
“I think our concerns start with communication,” said Patrick McCloud, chief executive officer of the Virginia Apartment Management Association in Richmond. McCloud has worked as a liaison between Tech and the association’s New River Valley-based chapter.
He said he wished that apartment-builders “had been brought into the conversation earlier,” but he added that communication between developers and the university has improved.
He echoed Craig’s concern that if Tech houses more students on campus and growth slows, the town could have many empty apartments in its future.
“We want to avoid overdevelopment,” McCloud said. “Vacancies can lead to a decline in overall housing in Blacksburg. We want to make sure that the university doesn’t think just within, but about the overall town of Blacksburg.”
McCloud noted a recent example in Farmville, where developers built apartments to handle an expected enrollment boom at Longwood University that never materialized. Longwood then mandated that second-year students would live on campus, which exacerbated the local housing overabundance. He said that two apartment companies went bankrupt.
McCloud said that because Virginia Tech has already reached a previously stated goal of enrolling 30,000 undergraduate students, he doesn’t know if businesses and town leaders can count on the university’s continued growth.
“Our message is don’t forget about the private housing providers,” he said. “Overdevelopment can be a death knell. It can reduce the quality of housing. We don’t want to get in a situation where we have more housing than we need, because that can cause serious problems.”
Correction: The original version of the story had a different date for the weekend meeting.