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How far should a university’s off-campus responsibility extend?

Every day Mary Stone finds herself face-to-face with an enemy.

It’s a massive eyesore, a hodgepodge of sand, rocks, concrete and garbage in her University Park neighborhood. So notorious is the foe that it’s simply known by three words: The Dirt Pile.

The pile’s appearance shifts depending on the vantage point. From Stone’s street, it looks like a vast landfill. Glancing at it from the other side, near an elementary school, it’s more of a mountain.

For the past five, or eight, or 10 years — neither residents nor city officials were able to be definitive — trucks have been zooming in and out of the Dirt Pile. It’s officially a material storage facility owned by the city.

Stone feels no one is concerned about the Dirt Pile: “It’s in a neighborhood they don’t care about.” In other words, she said, it’s poor. About 7,400 residents are estimated to live there. The median income is $18,128.

To her, the Dirt Pile is a symbol, representing neglect, disengagement, despair. She believes the city has turned its back on the neighborhood she’s lived in for all of her 73 years. The University of Akron has, too. The 218-acre campus just blocks from her house feels like a separate city.

“They don’t give back at all,” she said.

The pile is on the radar of Gary Miller, UA’s president. After all, many of the students who attend his institution live in the area during the academic year.

“It’s a concern of ours, too,” Miller said. “We’ll work on that, somehow.”

The pile and much of the area surrounding it, though, are city property. Sure, the University of Akron is lots of things — an economic driver, a center of arts and culture — but for Stone and others who live nearby, UA is a neighbor, and a powerful one at that.

Miller said the university wants to impact the University Park area “to the extent that we can,” which raises the question: How far can, and should, a college’s off-campus influence extend?

The Dirt Pile. Photo: Gus Chan, Crain’s Cleveland Business

Safety first

For the university, there’s no higher priority than safety, the president said. It’s especially top of mind right now. Three people were shot in September as an off-campus party in University Park dispersed. Maya Noelle McFetridge, 18 and a first-year student at Akron, and Alexander Beasley, 25, died. Police were reportedly less than 100 yards away.

The university acted fast, holding a press conference two days after the shooting. It wasn’t the first time university leaders unveiled off-campus safety plans.

“If those kids had survived, or just been wounded,” said Stone, the 73-year-old resident, “I don’t think they would have done anything about it.”

These latest initiatives included pledges to add more campus police officers and committing $1 million to an already-ongoing effort with the city and county to add more broadband security cameras.

Miller, who took office in 2019, is the fifth president Akron’s had in 22 years. Four of those changes happened in the past seven years. The changing leadership may be one factor that has hindered progress.

One predecessor, for example, got rid of an off-campus student services department focused on boosting community engagement and safety. In the September press conference, Miller made it clear his administration wants to run point from here.

“It is clear we must do more,” he said. “It is clear the university must take the lead.”

Heading south

Photo: Gus Chan, Crain’s Cleveland Business

The student-focused section of University Park is more often referred to as “south of Exchange,” a nod to the busy thoroughfare of East Exchange Street. The whispers students volley between themselves can feel coded, big “us versus them” energy: Don’t go south of Exchange. If you go four blocks back, you’re in a bad, bad area.

University Park is a transient neighborhood due to student schedules. Only about 13% of residents own a home.

Concerns about safety and about gun violence have been rising in the neighborhood as well as across Akron. City officials are using portions of its federal pandemic relief money to go toward a “whole-of-Akron” approach to try to curb it.

“I used to go to house parties because that was the life of college,” said Asha Brown, a 21-year-old UA student. “But now it’s like, I don’t want to go to a college party and get shot.”

Yet the student-dominated chunk of University Park still has less gun activity per capita than 49 other neighborhoods in the city, according to a September analysis from the Akron Beacon Journal. Community members outside of the university-adjacent area wondered to the newspaper if the response to nearly 40 other homicides in different parts of the city would be as swift.

Dan Horrigan, Akron’s mayor, said the city takes the same approach to south of Exchange as it does with all neighborhoods.

“I will always fight for a strong, successful, independent University of Akron,” Horrigan wrote after September’s shootings. “The institution has endured significant challenges in the last decade. As a community, as students, faculty, parents, and stakeholders: Now is not the time to pull back or turn away.”

The university shares a mutual aid agreement with the Akron Police Department. This means the institution’s force has jurisdiction over some city blocks. Grace Kasunic, the undergraduate student government president, called it a “gray area” when it comes to deciphering who’s actually responsible.

That uncertainty, she said, can make students wonder if a crime is even worth reporting.

Longstanding effort

InfoCision Stadium in Akron. Photo: Gus Chan, Crain’s Cleveland Business

It’s not the first time there’s been an effort to revamp the neighborhood. The members of the University Park Alliance read like a Who’s Who of Akron when it was founded in 2001, including leaders from the public school district, hospital systems and the city itself.

The plans called for turning the neighborhood into a bustling mixed-use mecca to attract residents and employers. Despite millions in funding and an all-star team of local leaders, plans to revitalize the area didn’t pan out.

“These are all busy people,” said Dave Lieberth, a former deputy mayor of Akron who also served as University Park Alliance’s interim director for a few months. “They all had balls in the air, and none of them could keep their eye on this ball.”

The group eventually disbanded in 2013, three years after the university’s $65 million football stadium opened. In an alternate reality, the nearby intersection of Brown and East Exchange streets could have, would have, should have looked different, perhaps more similar to anchor developments in other college towns, said Lieberth.

“It should have been residential, it should have been retail, it should have complemented InfoCision Stadium,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”

Shifting dynamic

Photo: Gus Chan, Crain’s Cleveland Business

About 23,200 total students went to UA full-time in 2011. The number is down to 12,400, today, dropping 47% in a decade. Shifting enrollment impacts the neighborhood’s makeup as well as landlords’ bottom lines.

The streets aren’t teeming with pride of place. A lot of older houses remain in poor condition despite efforts to remove blight. One company lists three-bedroom homes with most utilities included at about $340 — $470 per month per bedroom, far cheaper than apartments at some of the fancy developments that have popped up in recent years.

Even before the pandemic marked a switch to online learning, fewer students were renting south of Exchange, according to Kurt Seifert, a local landlord. The hits intensified when some students went home to study in 2020.

“Our landlords still had to pay their bills,” said Kerry Jackson, UA’s off-campus safety director. “And so a lot of them went elsewhere to fill the empty beds and empty houses. And they weren’t students.”

A lot of the problems popping up now, Jackson said, directly relate to that dynamic.

Turning a new page

This semester, university leaders are trying again. They’re re-examining zoning laws and how they can be enforced. They’re looking to improve housing and increase collaboration with the city as well as increase oversight of landlords.

In fact, the conversations they’re having with landlords and others have sparked more ideas. Maybe a new building could host neighborhood activities. Perhaps a new police substation used by both the city and the university forces would be good. But both ideas would require private donations or grants to make happen, Miller said.

The president is working on a “long-term plan of control and intervention,” due early next year.

One of the biggest changes the university has made since September is creating a new job focused on off-campus safety, for which they hired Jackson, a veteran of both the city and the university’s police forces. He was planning to retire until the administration came knocking.

So far, he’s taking a lot of meetings. Two of the people he’s met with are the student government president, Kasunic, and vice president, James Garchar. The pair issued a lengthy letter after September’s shootings.

“The dangers of off-campus parties are an unfortunate reality at the University of Akron due to the threat presented by non-student crime in the area,” they wrote.

They asked for the city and UA to work with them to provide “swift, sustainable, and collaborative action.” So far, the leaders feel like they’re getting that from the university administration.

There’s a new form where students can easily report non-emergency problems off-campus, as well as a push to get more students to opt-in to receive emergency text messaging alerts. Off-campus private civilian safety patrols, which went away during the pandemic, are coming back south of Exchange, too.

One of the biggest parts of Jackson’s job, though, is simply trying to create some type of bridge between students and other residents.

“It’s not really melding real well, so we’re looking at how we can get everyone to meld a little bit better,” he said.

He’s mulling over hosting events — “something that gets everybody out of the house at the same time and puts them in the same place” — but doesn’t yet know what those could look like. He believes the residents want to live close to a university for a reason. He said he wants to include them.

“You should be appreciative when someone chooses to live next door to you,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors.”

Stone, the woman who lives by the Dirt Pile, is curious yet skeptical about how these plans shake out. She hopes UA actually works to become more aware of people like her, proud Akronites who want to stay put, be safe, feel respected.

Until that happens, she said, she wouldn’t necessarily recommend the university to anyone she knows.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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