LSU is charging ahead with plans to build Nicholson Gateway, a mixed-use development concept that is intended to add much-needed student housing while expanding LSU’s footprint west across Nicholson Drive.
Yet the project, which is a public-private partnership, needs an infusion of public dollars to the tune of about $23 million to kick-start construction. LSU officials hope to get that money from the state out of the legislative session and start construction by the end of the year. The hope is that students can move into the new housing by 2018.
But Gov. John Bel Edwards said his priorities for the state’s construction dollars — which are always in high demand — are going to be devoted to transportation and deferred maintenance. Specifically, Edwards previously has stated he’s far less interested in funding shiny new public buildings while higher education has an almost $2 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects that have left roofs leaking, paint peeling and air conditioners broken on campuses across the state for years.
LSU officials are nonetheless pushing forward with their request for their project to receive financing this year.
“The project is not viable if we don’t get this portion in capital outlay,” said Jason Droddy, LSU’s vice president of policy and external affairs, referring to the state’s construction budget.
The public portion of funds is designated for the build-out of initial infrastructure, including the underground utility network, needed to develop the 28-acre site between West Chimes Street and Skip Bertman Drive where the former Alex Box Stadium and old Nicholson Apartments were. The public dollars also are needed for a parking garage.
The rest of the project will be funded with private investment and self-generated revenue from student housing fees. But the governor’s administration put only $6.9 million in the proposed budget for state construction projects toward Nicholson Gateway.
“It’s not our intent to fund more than what’s in the (state construction budget) bill right now for that project,” said Jacques Berry, a spokesman for the state Division of Administration, which oversees budgeting issues for the governor.
LSU officials expressed urgency in starting the project on time in order to open up the housing units for students by 2018. Dan Layzell, vice president for finance and administration, said last week that LSU can hardly provide housing for its roughly 5,300 freshmen.
There’s also a lack of graduate student housing since LSU demolished the Nicholson Apartment complex. Droddy said the loss in those units, which typically have been used for international students and graduate students with families, has stymied their graduate enrollment, something LSU has hoped to grow.
Nicholson Gateway calls for 1,260 apartment-style beds and 410 suite-style beds.
“The total project is over $300 million dollars that will be funded through private markets,” Layzell said. “What we’ve asked for is a small fraction of that.”
The development also calls for study areas, green spaces and 30,000 to 50,000 square feet of retail space.
“It will transform the western edge of campus, extending LSU’s campus character and student-life experience across Nicholson and creating a distinct entrance corridor for the university,” said Sarah Whittaker, a spokeswoman for the LSU Foundation, a partner in the project.
The area, which is across from Tiger Stadium, is expected to be a popular location for visitors and students to tailgate for home football games. It also contributes to the city’s plan of developing Nicholson Drive, one of the last undeveloped stretches in the city between downtown and LSU.
“It’s going to upgrade the curb appeal of that part of town and campus; it’s going to have students living out there generating an economic impact for the state, for the city and that region,” Layzell said. “And it’s going to be a focal point for those seven or eight weekends in the fall when we have 100,000 visitors on campus for football.”
The project has been in the planning stages for at least four years. Earlier this year, the private developer Rise Real Estate was chosen to design, build and finance the project.
So far, $2 million has been spent on the project for planning work.
Richard Lipsey, chairman of the Board of Regents, has been advocating that the Louisiana Legislature prioritize funding to take care of the tremendous deferred maintenance needs of the state’s colleges and universities.
“As far as I’m concerned, every nickel the state puts into capital outlay should go toward deferred maintenance,” Lipsey said. He said the Governor’s Office has indicated higher education could receive about $40 million for deferred maintenance this year — which is a drop in the bucket compared with what they need, while also being far more than they’ve received in recent years.
Lipsey said he would be fine with the state allocating the dollars to Nicholson Gateway as long as it doesn’t subtract from funds that higher education institutions will receive for their maintenance backlog. LSU alone has a $670 million in deferred maintenance requests.
Meanwhile, lawmakers hearing LSU’s request during the legislative session have expressed skepticism about LSU’s housing emergency.
“There are so many housing options if you drive around,” said state Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, last week during a committee hearing. “From a prioritization of funds perspective, would it not be better to pick a project instead of constructing something new?”
Droddy later said the quality and availability of student housing is important for LSU to stay competitive.
“Students absolutely do judge a university based on where they’ll live, and the quality of the recreational and academic buildings,” he said.