Student housing boom not top priority for Clemson officials
By Greg Oliver
CLEMSON — At the request of planning and codes director Todd Steadman, members of Clemson City Council and the city’s Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review Tuesday picked the top-priority issues they feel the city is facing.
The priorities were part of the first of three joint long-range planning sessions between council and the two advisory boards that will take place at City Hall. The opening session was designed to identify issues that need to be addressed as part of four overall categories: mobility, housing, infrastructure and design.
Ranked in order from highest to lowest, according to the number of votes received in the form of red dot stickers, the results were not what Steadman was expecting. The top priority, with 13 dots, was the downtown streetscape design on College Avenue from U.S. Highway 123 to S.C. 93, plus the side streets. Traffic congestion received nine dots, while transit and the Green Crescent Trail tied for third with eight dots each.
Transportation for seniors, traditional non-student housing, affordable housing, low-income housing, assisted living, identification of a new elementary school location in the future and economic strategies as they relate to planning all received at least one dot.
But Steadman said the Clemson University student housing issue, and the lack of dots affixed next to it, came as the biggest surprise to him.
“This is the No. 1 problem from a planning standpoint,” Steadman said. “It would get 12 dots (from the planning department if officials took a vote). I was just shocked.”
Mayor J.C. Cook said he feels the reason is a resignation to what has and is continuing to happen in downtown Clemson.
“A lot of people feel we have lost that battle with the new buildings going up, and we will have a better idea a year from now when all these new places are online and we can see what happens to them collectively,” Cook said. “I think when you see these three come online, you will see the total occupancy take a dip and you’re going to see developers not be anxious to grow and build. I’m not going to say it won’t become a problem again in three to four years, but I think people look at these other things as more immediate problems.”
Steadman said he doesn’t see eye to eye on the student housing issue. Instead, the planning and codes director feels the problem will continue to grow unless the university changes direction on its growth enrollment plans in the future — something that isn’t expected to occur.
“The students are coming — thousands of them are coming,” Steadman said. “We’re already addressing all these priorities. It is the biggest problem we’re facing from a planning standpoint.”
The planning director said the number of dots for the downtown streetscape design shows that “it’s clear we need to address that corridor.” The dots for traffic congestion could be lessened, Steadman said, “if we had more people on buses.”
“It’s going to be one of the most difficult to deal with, and a lot of that is what the city can’t control — people on the Seneca side going to the Easley side,” he said.
Chapman said he feels the student housing issue and its effects are “symptoms of inadequate planning.”
“I don’t know if I totally accept your notion that students will need housing over the next several years,” Chapman said. “How we plan for Clemson 10, 20 and 30 years is going to result from what happens with all these issues.
“I don’t discount the impact of student housing, but if we don’t have the right planning in place to handle all of this, we’re sunk.”
Mayor pro tem Tim Fowler said he doesn’t feel the student housing issue, resulting in the influx of mixed-use apartment complexes downtown and increased traffic in the city, is due to a lack of planning.
“I don’t think any of us saw this coming,” Fowler said. “I receive no other complaints about anything else but downtown. I’ve never heard anyone complain about anything built on Kelly Road, but if something gets built downtown, they come unglued.
“This is a financial decision to some point, because if you can’t get these apartments, and they are drawn by the market, (developers) are not going to build these things for fun.”
Eric Newton, a member of the planning commission, said he feels transportation infrastructure is important.
“If you get that clicking, all these other things will fall in place,” Newton said, adding that the Green Crescent Trail “will alleviate some of the pressure off the roads.”
Cook said he hopes residents will think of transit as more than just buses as the city moves toward the future.
“There’s personal rapid transit if this goes with roads that could be built over present roadways,” Cook said. “I know people think that’s Disneyland or ‘pie in the sky,’ but we’ve seen projects with other cities doing it and it taking place all over the world. If we get the right kind of transit system to take care of everyone — and I mean senior citizens, residents and students alike — to take them where they want to go without having to wait a long time to ride, that would not only help traffic congestion go down, but also alleviate all of the other problems we have except for pass-through traffic.”
Newton said he feels it will take the market “three to five years” to absorb the mixed-use apartments under construction now and set to open by late summer, as well as additional projects set to come on board within that 3-5 year period. He said efforts also need to be made to attract single-family housing developers.
But Newton also pointed out that better education of the public about what goes into the construction of apartment complexes in town is also needed.
“People are quick to say no but don’t understand the process of what we’re trying to do,” Newton said, adding he wants to see more affordable housing throughout the city. “We’re putting way more thought into this than they are, and it’s our job to educate them as to why we’re doing what we’re doing. There are more people that want to live in downtown Clemson but don’t have the opportunity because there isn’t room to grow.”
Cook said many building projects are increasing in height “because the cost of going up is cheaper than going out.”
“Land costs are so high,” Cook said.
Chapman said one thing the group must deal with is the “elephant in the room.”
“You can’t deal with these issues unless Clemson University comes on board,” Chapman said. “If we aren’t successful at getting them to come to the table in a collaborative way, we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.”
Council, the planning commission and architectural review board, of which there were nearly 20 combined members present, will meet again from noon to 2 p.m. today, and the final meeting will take place from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday. A more in-depth discussion and ideas on how to handle the priority issues will take place at the meetings.
Steadman said he is pleased with the input given regarding the issues and their prioritization during Tuesday’s inaugural meeting.
“I think we made a great first step,” Steadman said.
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