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Arial View of University of Utah campus

Turning a historically commuter campus into a campus community is more than a cultural shift; it’s also a massive infrastructure project.

The University of Utah is embarking on an effort to transform its 170-year-old campus by doubling on-campus housing—adding 5,000 new student beds by 2030. To reach that goal, the university will launch a public-private partnership, also known as a P3, with a company that can design, finance, build and maintain the new student housing.

The university is distinct from most of its peers across the country, and also in Utah, due to its lack of on-campus and even near-campus student housing, said John Creer, chief real estate officer. At most public U.S. universities, approximately 25% of students live on campus, and student housing was built over time as enrollment increased. But over successive decades at the U, many students chose to live at home or rented space in the small bungalows and limited apartment buildings that nestle around the campus in neighborhoods to the west and south.

As a result, on-campus housing development lagged. The 2002 Winter Games provided a timely infusion of new and remodeled housing in and around Fort Douglas as the university played host to the Olympic athletes’ village, but even those apartments are aging now. The university opened the first phase of Kahlert Village in the fall of 2020, which added just under 1,000 beds, and is currently building the fourth wing of Kahlert Village, which will add another 430 beds and is expected to be ready for students in the fall of 2023.

“At institutions of our size in other states, there are typically thousands of purpose-built student housing units,” Creer said. “There just isn’t a lot of that housing stock around here. It’s unusual, to say the least.”

Trying to make up that lost ground will be expensive as construction costs fluctuate with inflation and available materials. Still, the 100% increase in student housing is essential to creating the student experience university leaders envision as undergraduate enrollment is projected to grow to 40,000 over the next seven years. The U will need about 10,000 housing units to allow one of every four students to live on campus.

“We know that students who live on campus have a vastly different college experience from those who do not,” said Andrea Thomas, chief experience officer. “Living on campus for just one year can boost everything from increased on-time graduation rates to a greater sense of belonging. New student housing is critical to our efforts to create that Utah Fresh first-year experience.”

To reach the goal of 5,000 new units, the university will work with a private company that can plan, construct and operate student housing that will look and feel like the rest of the rooms, apartments and suites managed by Housing and Residential Education. Over the long-term contract, the university would continue to own the housing and the land beneath it.

P3 arrangements allow higher education institutions to tap into private industry expertise and reserve tuition and state dollars for other projects, while still being able to grow when traditional financing options, including bonding, are limited. Other public universities have launched variations of P3 arrangements, including Arizona State University, Texas A&M, Ohio State, UCLA and the University of Georgia.

In December, the university issued request for proposals (RFP) from technical, financial and legal advisors who will help guide the process of selecting a P3 partner.

At the same time, the U will request bonding authority from Utah lawmakers to finance potentially 2,000 of the student housing units independently at a cost of up to $384 million. Chief Financial Officer Cathy Anderson said combining traditional bond financing with a public-private partnership will maximize the university’s options and improve the terms of any potential development contract.

“Having the flexibility to access all types of financing for this housing will provide the best economic deal for the institution and protect our students’ tuition dollars and the taxpayer funding that supports this university,” Anderson said.

University leaders expect to pick P3 consultants by the end of February 2023. After working with the consultants, the U will seek bids from potential private housing developers. Construction on the first new buildings will begin in 2024 and be completed in 2026.

Recent U housing increases

The university is in the process of adding more than 1,700 beds of on-campus student housing to come online in the coming years. These projects include:

Another 552 beds in the Ivory University House will be privately owned and operated by the Ivory Foundation, opening in fall 2023.

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