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Boulevard of Bristling Dreams

UNLV construction projects have kicked into high gear but we aren't walking this street alone. Here's how public-private partnerships are remaking Maryland Parkway.

Business & Community  |  Apr 27, 2016  |  By Cate Weeks

Our little section of Maryland Parkway must leave passersby with a sense of the street’s split personality. The west side is dominated by UNLV’s impressive, and often massive, modern buildings. Greenspun Hall’s tower soars above an array of solar panels. The silver-clad Student Union, with its graphic building wrap, offers a hint of the colorful gathering spaces within. Even Flora Dungan Humanities, though certainly a product of the 1970s aesthetic, such that it was, offers an architectural lesson in forward-thinking ideas in energy efficiency.

The areas directly surrounding campus, meanwhile, are dotted with aging and inconsistent architecture. Alongside treasured local restaurants, there’s some carefully curated design by corporate chains. The sidewalks are cramped by overhead utility lines with no setback from the street. Maryland Parkway just hasn’t been able to project a strong college-district atmosphere. 

This spring, though, construction fences have gone up around two new projects that signal a change in the street life along our beloved and belittled Parkway.

One end soon will feature the U District student housing project, at the site of the old University Park Apartments. It’s certainly understandable if alumni have forgotten these 1960s-era units sandwiched between the elegant UNLV Foundations Building and the strip mall home of Paymon’s Mediterranean Cafe and Lounge, where many a Rebel has broken (pita) bread. Hidden behind whitewashed cinderblock walls and overgrown olive trees, the complex hadn’t aged well and few students chose to live there despite the convenience.

By fall 2017, the 14-acre site will be home to about 750 students in the first apartment-style housing ever on campus, with future phases upping that to about 2,500-3,000 new beds targeted at our upperclassmen and graduate students. 

Further down and across the street is University Gateway, a mixed-use project that will start with a much-needed garage for UNLV permit holders. Kitty-corner to Greenspun Hall, it will bring more convenient parking to the population-dense southeast corner of campus. It replaces a couple of buildings including the long-gone Moose McGillicuddy’s and the series of restaurants that followed it.

In 2017, the project will add office and retail space, including the new headquarters for UNLV’s police department. With the potential for outdoor cafes, the Gateway development offers a new front door for the parkway.

These two projects have one major thing in common: Unlike UNLV’s existing residence halls and parking garages, they are getting off the ground through public-private partnerships.

“Campuses throughout the country during the economic downturn were forced to look to alternative models to get anything built,” UNLV President Len Jessup said. “But really, this has evolved well beyond something you do because you have to. It’s about doing more for our campus than we could do on our own.”

National Context 

For most of their history, public universities were all things to their students: educator, landlord, cook, and bookseller. When the need for new residence halls arose, they financed them by lobbying their legislators and attracting donations from affluent community members, or they developed internal business plans and issued bonds backed by such reliable income streams as student fees and parking permits. Certainly that was the case with Dayton Hall in 2001, when UNLV last added housing, and with the Student Union and the Student Recreation and Wellness Center projects in 2007. 

UNLV began forming business relationships that go beyond a straight-forward purchase of goods a couple decades ago — the Barnes & Noble-run bookstore and Aramark’s dining operations, for example. But a decade ago, the Nevada System of Higher Education began pushing its institutions to think even bigger. “It may not have been new in higher education, but these sorts of partnerships were new for the system,” said Gerry Bomotti, UNLV’s senior vice president of finance and business. 

Leaders had witnessed how Arizona State University had raised its stature while transforming the community around it through public-private partnerships. Nationally, parking projects and housing became easy targets at institutions like University of Kentucky, Texas A&M, Portland State, and The Ohio State University. 

UNLV’s housing program is now one of the success stories. As Great Recession-era budget cuts permeated the campus and positions were eliminated or simply left unfilled, UNLV housing struggled. By 2011, just 900 students lived on campus, filling only 55 percent of the available beds. Housing staff, Bomotti noted, were struggling to maintain student programming with declining revenues, so they increased housing fees to make up for the shortfalls.

“They ended up pricing themselves out of the market,” Bomotti said. “Their focus was their core function to enrich the student experience, not on marketing and facility maintenance.”

So UNLV began exploring models other than that “all things to all students” approach. After a request for proposals (RFP) process, UNLV selected AVS Housing Group, a venture between local real estate firms and a national student housing specialist. The university retained its programming responsibilities in the residence halls while AVS now handles the marketing, contracts, and facility operations. 

“In spring 2014, people came to me and said, ‘We have a problem with housing — too many freshmen want to sign up another year.’ It’s a good problem to have.”

The residence halls are now at capacity with 1,800 Rebels — primarily freshmen — and housing revenues are up about $4.5 million annually, and the university is positioned to expand on-campus housing. When the 14-acre site of the old University Park Apartments became available, UNLV jumped at it, partnering with local developer The Midby Cos. 

Through a 40-year lease agreement, The Midby Cos. is financing the $76 million project and will operate the units as part of UNLV’s on-campus housing offerings. Along with the staples of social lounges and study rooms you’d expect in campus housing, the complex will offer a resort-style swimming pool, outdoor barbecues, and other amenities that public institutions seldom can afford. 

The due diligence process for making sure the project meets UNLV’s needs was both exhaustive and public. It resulted in a 415-page briefing paper submitted to the system’s Board of Regents. Included were feasibility reports from independent consultants, details on how much students will be charged and the terms of their contracts, as well as what happens should future construction stall.

A key benefit, Jessup said, is that these partnerships mitigate UNLV’s financial risk. “This way we can focus our limited resources fully on addressing the academic infrastructure needs that are critical for us achieving our Top Tier goals,” he said, referring to UNLV’s strategic plan to become one of the nation’s best public universities. “We’re able to offer competitive and much-needed new amenities and services without taking on the debt burden to build them.”

It’s a comfortable financial investment risk for The Midby Cos., said its CEO and director of development, Eric Midby. “Our company does a really good job at creating multifamily communities,” he said. “We can quantify the risk. And we know that if we don’t focus on delivering something that the students will absolutely love, something that really meets their needs, we won’t succeed.” 

Grounded in the Master Plan

There are limits, however, and times that UNLV has turned away from public-private proposals. Nearly a decade ago, UNLV needed more parking and wanted it located on the busy southeast side of campus. With no university-owned land available in the area, UNLV requested information from developers. “What we got back just wasn’t suitable,” Bomotti said. “The proposals were too skewed toward the developer and didn’t meet the needs we’d identified.”

Instead, UNLV settled on a second-choice location with its own financing and built the Tropicana Garage near the Thomas & Mack Center. But officials kept an eye on the market. As the economy recovered and property owners along Maryland Parkway showed signs of being ready to invest again, another request went out. This time G2CapGo came back with the University Gateway project.  

Bomotti also once looked at privatizing food and beverage at the Thomas & Mack Center. “We were pretty happy to confirm what the staff there already knew about themselves,” Bomotti said. “They had three decades of experience competing — and competing well — against other venues. They had a strong infrastructure already in place. The numbers told us to keep running it ourselves.”

Dave Frommer, executive director of planning and construction, noted that the two Maryland Parkway projects are a key element of the campus master plan, which was officially updated in 2012. Just as the Summerlin and Green Valley communities in Southern Nevada were master planned, so too, is the campus. 

“Our master plan makes sure we’re ready when things like the U District and the Gateway projects come up,” Frommer said. “We recognized immediately that these projects not only support our need for housing and parking and office space, they also support our efforts for Maryland Parkway’s redevelopment and the creation of Midtown UNLV.”

Midtown UNLV aims to create a more vibrant university district, one that will keep students close and attract the community to our academic and cultural offerings. It’s also tied to Clark County and Regional Transportation Commission efforts to make revitalization all along Maryland Parkway a priority. “Ultimately, we hope these two projects bring real momentum to Midtown,” President Jessup said. 

The Gateway project’s summary submitted for the Board of Regents’ approval noted that the developer’s retail spaces will benefit from increased foot traffic as well as an increased sense of safety when the UNLV police department moves in.

The master plan also ensures decision makers aren’t distracted by pitches that, though exciting, veer away from true campus needs. “We don’t do deals that just end up subsidizing a builder’s goal,” Bomotti said. “To be a partnership, it must serve both entities equally well.”

That principle will be at the forefront of what could be UNLV’s biggest public-private partnership project yet. At the end of 2015, landlocked UNLV jumped at the chance to expand with the purchase of 42 acres next to campus on Tropicana Avenue east of Koval Lane. The acquisition opens up the possibilities for several long-wanted projects without cramping existing buildings and the coveted open spaces that foster student activities.

The possibility with the most buzz includes an on-campus stadium. But that still leaves plenty of room for much-needed facilities for graduate/professional studies, more housing, and self-supporting facilities such as community medical and dental clinics — all of which would need to be supported by further retail and dining options.

The stadium question soon may be settled by the governor’s Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee and the Legislature’s Campus Improvement Authority Board. But, “with or without a stadium, the land will be developed significantly through partnerships,” Frommer said.

Since Jessup took UNLV’s top job in January 2015, he’s repeatedly talked about the changing model for public universities — one that brings more entrepreneurial strategies to the business side of running the university. “To some people in higher education, that’s a little foreign. To me, it’s opportunity. It’s how we’ll actually fuel our ambitions.”