QPac grows in North Haven

For Councilman Matthew Fitch, life in northern Hamden near Quinnipiac University brings its own seasons, linked not with weather but with the ebb and flow of the academic calendar.

“The sense of relief during school vacations and summer vacations is palpable — it’s probably the feeling a tourist town has when fall comes,” Fitch said. “We love having them here, but it’s nice to get the town back when they leave.”

As Quinnipiac University considers its own campus expansion, Hamden residents voice concerns about possible repercussions on small-town life.
As Quinnipiac University considers its own campus expansion, Hamden residents voice concerns about possible repercussions on small-town life.

The residential neighborhood of Mt. Carmel, the area directly surrounding Quinnipiac, was home to shady sidewalks, quiet cul-de-sacs and grassy backyards long before it became known as a college town. And therein lies the problem — as Quinnipiac has grown over the past two decades from an unassuming commuter school to a bustling and competitive regional university, the quiet residential setting outside campus limits has turned not so quiet, much to the dismay of neighbors.

As Yale mulls over how to build new colleges while not ruffling any neighborhood feathers, a few miles up Whitney Avenue, Quinnipiac is in the midst of doing the same — and for Hamden residents, it can’t happen quickly enough. As the school’s size has grown, so have the concerns of its increasingly vocal neighbors. But Quinnipiac administrators, town government officials and local residents said that those concerns, bubbling steadily over the years, have finally started to recede. As the university moves to build new dormitories, students living off campus will be allowed to move back into school housing and restore peace and quiet to local neighborhoods in the process.

A college grows up

In an age before Toad’s Place, Quinnipiac posed no problem for Hamden residents, as it was not located in Hamden, nor was it even called Quinnipiac. Founded in 1929, the university started in New Haven, adopted the name Quinnipiac College two decades later, and moved to its home in Mt. Carmel in 1966. For decades after that, the college blended easily into the local area, tucked away behind the 1,500-acre expanse of Sleeping Giant State Park. Hamden, population 60,000, was a quiet town, not a college town.

In 1987, when John Lahey arrived on campus as the college’s new president, not much had changed. The college’s largest fund-raising campaign to date had been for $1 million; it did not reach its goal. In 1990, Quinnipiac had about 3,000 students, 900 of whom took classes part-time while many others commuted from the local area.

A decade later, Quinnipiac College became Quinnipiac University. With the opening of its new athletic complex on York Hill, it now has two campuses in Hamden, and a third one is to be purchased at the 100-acre Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield site in North Haven. The student body now numbers 5,200 undergraduates plus another 2,000 graduate students.

“It’s been a big change,” said Hamden resident Gail Traester, who lives near the Mt. Carmel campus. “This is the north end of town, which has been very quiet. Quinnipiac has always been there, but it’s been much smaller. It’s just grown so quickly.”

As the university’s enrollment numbers have risen, the average age of nearby residents has fallen — and not in a good way, locals said. Scores of houses have been bought out by landlords looking to make a quick buck by renting to students, leaving scattered families reminiscing about quiet years past. Neighborhood life moves at a different pace — and volume — Thursday through Sunday, not to mention during the summer, which is marked by a mass exodus in May, a mass re-entry three months later and a mass infestation of cobwebs in between, several residents said.

Growing pains

The problem was born out of the Quinnipiac’s speedy growth, which mirrored the rise of its stature in the northeast and across the country. As application numbers increased and the university bumped up its enrollment, on-campus housing grew tight. At one point in the late 1990s, the city of Hamden barred the university from building any new dormitories. The move exacerbated the housing crunch and forced Quinnipiac to purchase two dozen nearby homes and rent them to students, said Lynn Bushnell, vice president for public affairs.

Eventually, the university mandated that all seniors live off campus. Many clustered in a large apartment complex near the university — but then that apartment complex decided to stop renting to undergraduates, and students flooded into local neighborhoods. About 2,200 Quinnipiac undergraduates — 42 percent of the total college enrollment — live off campus, Bushnell said.

Al Dobie, president of the West Woods Neighborhood Association, said he witnessed the sudden student demand for housing.

“It was causing big problems in the neighborhoods, and it seemed like Quinnipiac really didn’t give a damn,” he said. “It finally got to the point that many groups were beginning to form around this issue of students in the neighborhoods and what people saw as a diminishing of their lifestyles with the students around.”

It wasn’t that the students were particularly bad, and certainly no worse than the average college student, neighbors said. It was the sheer differences in undergraduates’ lifestyles — the late hours, the weekend carousing — that made students far from ideal neighbors.

Bringing students back on campus

Councilman Michael W. Germano, Jr., knows a thing or two about town-gown relations — after all, he got elected because of his emphasis on them.

Germano, a 2005 Quinnipiac graduate, ran for Hamden’s Legislative Council while a junior at the university, advocating increased communication between students and local residents. Both groups never actually had anywhere to go with their complaints, he said. Germano lost by a slim margin in that election but won the seat in 2005. He is now chair of a three-person committee that serves as a liaison for town-gown issues.

Local residents and town officials point to that 2005 election as the turning point in the quest to bring Quinnipiac students back on campus.

Mayor Craig Henrici, who was elected at that time, lives about a mile from campus and said his two next-door neighbors and the neighbors across the street are all Quinnipiac students. While they are no rowdier than typical college students, having them live in residential neighborhoods is not an ideal arrangement, and the university had long ignored the problems, he said.

“We kind of insisted at the beginning of my administration that they pay attention to [the issue of off-campus housing],” Henrici said. “Quinnipiac students, they’re not doing anything that I didn’t do in college … it’s just very difficult at 6 a.m., someone strolling in from a party, a mother and a father next door putting their kid on a school bus. It’s just not a good mix.”

The town played hardball, and the university listened — perhaps because of the bad publicity stemming from the complaints of local neighbors, who were starting to organize with more force, said Fitch, who serves on the three-person committee with Germano.

To ease the housing woes, Quinnipiac is currently building a 330-student dormitory on the Mt. Carmel campus that is set to open next fall. The university is also in the approval process for adding 1,800 new beds on the York Hill campus, as well as a student center and a parking garage, Bushnell said. The combination of those two projects will allow the school to bring all undergraduates back on campus and, in all likelihood, use the two dozen university-owned houses for other purposes, she said. For the first time in recent memory, this fall’s incoming class will be guaranteed housing for four years.

Henrici said the university has taken a number of other positive steps in addition to the construction plans, such as establishing a hotline for neighbors to call with any concerns and warning students of disciplinary action for off-campus malfeasance. Local neighbors and town officials said they are cautiously optimistic about the university’s plans.

“There is the sense that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Fitch said.

A trickle-down effect

The motivation for Quinnipiac’s recent expansion, in some senses, mirrors that under discussion at Yale — a desire to increase the student body so as to maximize the educational experience the university can provide. But at the same time, the issues of town-gown relations are markedly different. The Mt. Carmel area is mostly middle-class and white, as are most of Quinnipiac’s students. Their differences have come over matters of noise, household upkeep and alcohol use, and from the university’s perspective, the issues are fairly minor.

“I think that Quinnipiac has always had a fairly good relationship with the town, although there have … been some bumps in the road,” Bushnell said. “Many of the town’s concerns in the past … have related to students who are not living on campus.”

In New Haven, the divide between the university and the city can be traced back to issues of class and race. But like the Quinnipiac project, Yale’s proposed expansion into the Dixwell neighborhood would offer benefits to the town, revitalizing one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

While Yale has many students who live off campus — about 660 undergraduates declined university housing in 2005-’06, according to the Office of Institutional Research — New Haven’s downtown, where the University is already quite established, can absorb students without creating much of a disturbance. Historically, there have been few complaints from neighbors about Yale students living off campus, said Michael Morand, Yale’s associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs.

While the universities’ town-gown concerns differ, their solutions are similar in a number of ways. For one, Quinnipiac may begin to develop commercial property in Hamden, much as Yale has done with the popular Broadway retail district, said Dale Kroop, Hamden’s director of economic and community development. But Quinnipiac officials said that while the university is interested in facilitating local development, it has no firm plans to lead that development itself.

Quinnipiac also sponsors a Presidential Public Service Fellowship, in which students intern in town government offices. The program was modeled after Yale’s similarly-named fellowship, Morand said.

And just as Yale is credited with being the lifeblood of New Haven’s economic resurgence, Quinnipiac’s expansion brings similar benefits for Hamden, university and town officials said. The school is Hamden’s largest employer, contributing over $250 million annually to the local economy and bringing over 500,000 visitors into Hamden every year, according to the university. Many of the visitors come for Quinnipiac’s basketball and hockey games.

The net effect on town businesses is a palpable and positive one, Kroop said, and will only increase following last month’s opening of the TD Banknorth Sports Center, the two-arena sports complex on the York Hill campus.

Easing the tension

Economic benefits and housing issues aside, Quinnipiac’s growth has left an indelible mark on the formerly quiet subdivisions of Mt. Carmel. From traffic to noise, there is a certain hustle and bustle that residents will have to get used to, Traester said.

“We’re going to have to face it,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it, but we don’t know how to change it. It’s here to stay.”

Given that reality, it is incumbent upon students to play a greater positive role in the Hamden community, said Dana Owen, a Quinnipiac senior and the editor in chief of The Chronicle, the Quinnipiac student newspaper. Quinnipiac’s relationship with the community has historically been strained because of the housing crunch, she said, but students are making an effort to show local residents that they are interested in being good neighbors — albeit ones who hopefully can make their home on campus.

At the same time, as long as students are interspersed in neighborhoods among families, it will be difficult for the university to completely repair its relationship with the local area, she said.

“Fifty people could do community service in the town, but if [residents] see two people puking on their lawn, it’s going to be hard for them to see the good,” Owen said.

Still, with time and a gradual change in perspective, Hamden and Quinnipiac should come to see each other more as partners and less as adversaries, Germano said. The change in administration at City Hall was a good first step, he explained. Now that residents have been able to establish a dialogue with the town and the university over town-gown relations, he said, local sentiment will likely begin to change just as fast as the bulldozers and backhoes can get to work on the York Hill dormitories.

“It will take time,” he said. “But as generations change … their first impression will be, ‘this is a great college and an asset to the town,’ not ‘this is a college that’s growing out of control and is a burden.’”

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