It’s probably never been easy to live next door to a bunch of college students.
Drinking and loud parties. Overcrowded apartments and parking lots. Litter and vandalism.
But residents of Spokane’s Logan neighborhood near Gonzaga University say some of those problems have escalated in recent years, along with the arrival of a number of boxy duplexes and additions squeezed in behind rental homes.
The result, neighbors say, has been crowded streets and alleys, rental units with students “crammed into” spaces not intended as living spaces, and little recourse.
“It’s really been in the last five, six years that this kind of building has stepped up,” said Karen Byrd, chairwoman of the Logan Neighborhood Organization and a 20-year resident of the neighborhood. “We’re left knowing there’s 20 kids on this piece of property, but you can’t prove it. You can’t do anything about it.”
While they’re still pursuing various remedies, including a lawsuit on appeal in federal court and consideration of a special zoning district, neighbors also say that city and GU officials have stepped up efforts to deal with the problems in recent months. The university has been more aggressive in telling students about city ordinances and laws, as well as potential fines.
“We’re really begging the patience of the Logan neighborhood,” said Kassi Kain, a new GU employee who is working on off-campus relationships. “We’re really trying to make a cultural shift on campus.”
The Logan neighborhood isn’t the only example of the uneasy borders between colleges and communities. In Pullman, the College Hill has been the subject of similar complaints over the years. In Moscow, Mayor Nancy Chaney noted that crowded parking in the downtown area, party houses and similar issues tend to arrive with the return of students every fall. “I think every year at the start of school, we start looking at parking,” she said.
Part of the challenge, officials say, is educating a new group of students every year. GU is taking several steps to emphasize the need for students to be good neighbors this year, Kain said, including the distribution of a book with advice to off-campus students.
Chaney notes that sometimes it’s just a matter of letting students – who are on their own for the first time – know what’s expected.
“Sometimes, the lessons of being a good citizen come from someone just telling you what they are,” she said.
When Gonzaga students returned this fall, they were greeted by letters from the city of Spokane and Mayor Dennis Hession, urging them to follow city laws and ordinances, outlining the rules against occupying storage rooms and other spaces that don’t meet building codes, and informing them of the fines for violating those rules.
They were also greeted with a new emphasis from GU officials about being respectful of neighbors, keeping the noise down, and watching out for drinking-related problems. Kain said she met with several GU students living around the university, both after and before they had parties.
“We probably met with 15 houses in the neighborhood,” she said. “Since then it’s been, knock on wood, pretty good.”
John Pilcher, the city’s director of economic development, took on some of the neighborhood issues about a year ago, after hearing complaints from people who live in the Logan neighborhood. He helped organize meetings over the summer with neighbors, university officials, students and others.
“I hear concerns about parking, parties, garbage, general respect for the neighborhood … and the level of development,” he said.
Concerns over new developments center mostly on several new duplexes and additions that property owner Vince Dressel has put in behind homes he owns throughout the neighborhood.
Neighbors say the additions are crowded unappealingly behind the homes and have a plain, boxy appearance that sticks out among the more historic homes. They also say that too many students are living in them – sometimes crowding into storage spaces and other areas not meant to be lived in.
On a recent walk through the neighborhood, Byrd pointed out a three-story addition that sits behind a historic Queen Anne home at Mission and Cincinnati. The new building sits several feet behind the home, and it’s taller.
“The third floor is not supposed to be inhabited,” she said. “But we see lights and people in the third floor.”
‘Noise and mess’
Dressel has owned property in the neighborhood for decades, and his battles with neighbors go back nearly as far.
In an interview this week, he said he was operating within the rules, providing the required number of parking spaces. He said that if students were crowding into illegal spaces in the house, that it wasn’t his doing.
He took a reporter on a tour of an addition he’s building at Cincinnati and Nora. “This garage is better than 99 percent of living rooms,” he said.
“Everything we have done here I’ll match with anybody,” he said. “Everything is done legally, by the book.”
Neighbors complain harshly about Dressel, saying he’s disrespectful of the neighborhood’s character and of the neighbors themselves.
Dressel said that for many people in the Logan neighborhood, any change at all is objectionable. That’s an unreasonable expectation, he said, given the need for student housing. “There’s a demand, or we wouldn’t be building them,” he said.
He also noted safety features in his buildings – egress windows that would allow a tenant to jump out in case of a fire.
Such windows aren’t a part of many older rentals in the neighborhood, he said.
Kay Cobb has lived in the neighborhood since 1960. She said that Dressel’s boxy units are packed with students, and that the neighborhood in recent years has been occasionally overrun with “300-person” keggers.
“You can imagine the noise and the mess the next day,” she said.
Neighbors have sued over one of Dressel’s developments in federal court, arguing it failed to meet the city’s ordinance on historic preservation and failed to provide public input on the project. The suit was dismissed on a question of jurisdiction and is being appealed.
This year, the city rezoned the neighborhood to single-family residential after appeals from neighbors, but Byrd said that the practical limitations of the new zoning are less extensive than they hoped.
Instead of adding a duplex behind a home, a developer can build an addition of the same size, neighbors and Dressel said.
Now neighbors are interested in pursuing the idea of a special neighborhood district that would include land-use and zoning provisions, something that’s been done in other university towns.
Byrd and other neighbors say they’re encouraged by the responsiveness of GU and the city this year, after years in which they said the university didn’t do enough to deal with off-campus problems.
“They have made us feel like we’re being listened to for the first time ever,” Cobb said.
Kain said she’s not naively expecting parties and related problems to disappear completely and notes that there’s often a surge in parties when the weather warms up in the spring. But she said the university wants to do more to limit bad behavior.
“We’re a neighbor in the neighborhood as well, and we have similar concerns,” she said.