"Tonight's gonna be a hell of a night, man," Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Alex Roman mutters as he parks his patrol car at the entrance to University High School. It's the Friday before the University of Central Florida's Homecoming, about 10:30 p.m., and every sheriff's deputy in the university's vicinity is surrounding the College Suites apartment complex on Lokanatosa Trail.
Fifteen minutes earlier, two young men walked into an apartment waving handguns and demanding money. At least one of the six kids inside was pistol-whipped and had to be rushed to the hospital. The incident, the first cop on the scene announces, is likely drug-related.
As Roman waits, calls for service come in from all over the student-housing corridor: a disturbance at Knight's Krossing, a hit-and-run car accident at Jefferson Commons, another perimeter being set up at the Boardwalk apartments, and so on -- and there's no relief in sight. The dispatcher announces that the Sheriff's Office is too busy to send out a helicopter and canine unit right now. A moment later, the UCF police department radios that it can't spare anybody, either.
At 11 p.m., the Seminole County Sheriff's canine unit arrives and begins its search. A few minutes later, Orange County's helicopter arrives, both searching for suspects that have been on the run for more than an hour.
11:30 p.m., the search is called off -- the suspects escaped.
Hits like this, say nearby homeowners, are far too common. And since student housing near the 32,000-student commuter campus began to boom just a few years ago, those neighbors have become increasingly irate, as developers erected complexes practically next door to single-family subdivisions -- and the two lifestyles don't mesh.
Knight's Krossing's proposed expansion two years ago galvanized the homeowners, who had long since tired of the increased crime and noise and feared declining property values as well. Already home to 2,500 students in 744 units, Knight's Krossing had petitioned the Orange County Commission to allow another phase, adding up to 700 students to its resident population.
Homeowners fought and won: By a 7-0 vote, the commission denied Knight's Krossing's request. Knight's Krossing sued, and this year won the right to build those new units. The county is appealing [see 'A slowdown, then detour,' page 17]. Along the corridor new developments kept popping up, and wary neighbors feared that each could become the next Knight's Krossing. They wanted any new complexes built at least 1,000 feet away from standing subdivisions, with a cap on the number of beds a complex can provide.
With those standards, developers argued, no new developments could be built anywhere near the campus. Besides, they said, it was the students, not the developers, who were creating the problem. The commission forged a compromise, requiring a 400-foot buffer and a 750-bed maximum, then convened a task force to study the matter further.
Commissioners also agreed on this: UCF should take responsibility for housing more students. UCF currently houses less than 7 percent of its students on campus, 18 percent below the national average. Though UCF will add 1,600 new beds by 2002 -- adding to the 582-bed dorm the university opened last fall -- its housing percentage still falls short of its sister institutions, Florida State University and the University of Florida.
UCF officials replied that it was not feasible to build more than what was already planned. The demand for more housing, officials insisted, wasn't clear -- despite a more than 300-person waiting list for existing on-campus housing. And since UCF is a state institution, Orange County can't do anything about it.
Community pressure, however, can. Under fire as an irresponsible neighbor, UCF announced plans this summer to acquire Knight's Krossing and Knight's Court, two College Park Inc.-owned complexes often considered the worst of the lot. UCF expects to ink the deal later this month.
What does that mean? No one's really sure. UCF would like to use its police force to patrol the grounds of the private complex, though it needs legislative approval to do so. In the meantime, the university plans to bring more student-life programs, residence-hall advisors and an overall higher profile to these complexes.
UCF's neighbors are waiting to see if the situation will improve. At the very least, the acquisition means that the number of students living on property either owned or managed by UCF will increase considerably.
But that's hardly a solution. "It's laudable that the university will take over management," says homeowner and task force member Linda Dorian. "But that doesn't create one new living unit."
If UCF has its way, new units certainly will be needed. In the next 10 years, the university hopes to add almost 20,000 new students, making it one of the nation's biggest universities. Yet when the growth spurt is finished, UCF will house a mere 8 percent of its students on campus, meaning that roughly 44,000 students will have to live someplace else.
Where? Nearby residents would like to know -- and they say it's UCF's responsibility to come up with an answer. "What part of responsibility," Dorian asks, "are you -- the university -- going to take?"
For the most part, the Orange County Student-Housing Task Force was an exercise in head-butting. The homeowners, developers, legislators and the sole environmental activist that comprised the panel skipped around many tough issues, including the current buffer zone and UCF's growth-management responsibility (or lack thereof), choosing instead to debate increasing the police presence at student developments and continuing zero-tolerance policies toward law-breakers.
The indecisive tone came straight from the top: task force chairman and Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards, who seemed more than happy to straddle the fence. Phrases such as "It looks like the horse is already out of the barn" and "it's a sticky wicket" frequented his vocabulary, both during task-force sessions and in a later interview.
The task force's recommendations are likely to be presented to the county commission next month, but without any teeth, concedes task force member Ken Bosserman. "Making suggestions," he says. "That's all I think we were doing."
But there was a benefit nonetheless, says nearby homeowner and task force member Yvonne Opell. "[It] made the university aware that there was a problem," she says. "I think it opened their eyes -- they'll walk the extra mile to help solve it."
Maybe not, says Dana Jones, whose house sits in Knight's Krossing's backyard. She had hoped the task force might put pressure on UCF to increase student housing. "It's like saying the people causing the problem don't have any responsibility," she says of the task force's decision to let them off the hook.
But again, that requirement is out of the county's reach. While it could lobby the Florida Legislature to rein in the university's growth, the county can't directly force its will on the university.
With the current 400-foot buffer intact, developments are being pushed farther and farther from campus, meaning more traffic problems. Meanwhile, environmental activists fear that UCF-related development may eventually push east across the Econlockhatchee River, which they equate to opening the gates of hell.
Rather than take a stand on those issues, however, the task force focused on a less controversial idea: Redevelop existing low-density housing near campus to pack in as many students per square foot as possible. High-density housing away from neighborhoods, proponents think, is an ideal solution. But like everything else in this quagmire, it has its problems. For one, it may be too costly for developers to bulldoze the lines of duplexes to make way for student housing, since many of the units are privately owned and would have to be individually purchased. Thus, the task force concluded, the county may have to offer tax incentives to make the redevelopment profitable.
Beyond that, the task force urged "friendlier" designs for new complexes, to include better-lit parking lots (to improve safety for the residents) and no balconies (to reduce noise for the neighbors) and begged better cooperation between neighbors, students and developers.
"A lot of this," Edwards says, "is suffering the consequences of poor growth management decisions years ago. There's never going to be a cure-all."
In the 1970s, both Orange and Seminole counties designated land around UCF for high-density development ideal for housing large numbers of students. As the area grew, however, the market changed. Single-family units became more profitable than apartments, and developers lobbied the counties for zoning changes. The county commissions went along.
In the early '90s, the need for high-density housing re-emerged as UCF began to grow. Development exploded, with new complexes sprouting like weeds -- and the county commissions always went along, even when the complexes went up next to quieter subdivisions.
The first of more than a dozen student-targeted complexes, Collegiate Village Inn, opened its doors to 650 students in 1990. In 1991, River Park Apartments was built, housing both students and nonstudents. Then, in 1996, the flood gates opened.
That fall, University Club Townhouses and Boardwalk Apartments, both a mile or so south of UCF, welcomed nearly 900 and 500 students, respectively, all lured with individual, by-the-bedroom leases. One year later, the 780-bed Phase One of Knight's Krossing opened, as did Northgate Lakes, in Seminole County, with 710 beds.
Knight's Krossing added 780 beds in 1998. A mile and a half down Alafaya Trail, College Park Communities (which later bought out Knight's Krossing) opened Knight's Court, housing 1,224 students. In 1999, the ritzy, 912-bed Jefferson Commons opened, as did the 384-bed Gatherings and the 840-bed College Suites.
College Suites completed a second phase this year on Science Drive. Down the road, College Station opened up across from University Club. And developer Phillip Emmer started building a new complex in Seminole County, a few miles south of Riverwind Apartments, which opened in August to a slew of code-enforcement problems that kept its students living in hotels for more than a month.
All the while, single-family subdivisions also began dotting the terrain: As more and more students flocked to the housing corridor, those residents found themselves assailed by noise, traffic and crime.
As tensions mounted, students became scapegoats, thanks in part to blame from their landlords. At one task-force session, dozens of subdivision residents shared anecdotes and newspaper accounts suggesting that the kids are out control and need to be reined in. Since the county started cracking down, a College Park representative says, there have been far fewer problems. The task force endorsed that approach, and urged continuing "zero-tolerance" policies and referrals in which the cops turn students over to the university for discipline.
Are the students really that bad? According to local law enforcement, no. Asked if crime rates were higher in student-housing developments, Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Rudy Vinas told the task force: "It's equivalent to anywhere else in the county."
But that hasn't stopped the crackdown. Previously, an under-age drinker caught with a beer might have been given a warning; now, he's taken to jail. Then, the cops notify UCF, which takes disciplinary action, which can mean anything from drug- and alcohol-abuse classes to expulsion. UCF in turn notifies the student's parents.
Overkill or not, that solution overlooks the root problem: the size of the developments. With that comes the crime, the noise, the parking problems -- everything that neighbors have been complaining about. And until the protest of Knight's Krossing's proposed expansion, the county was unwilling to step in.
Almost a decade ago, says UCF spokesman Dean McFall, the university made a conscious decision to grow large. It wanted to shed the commuter-school and 'U Can't Finish' images that dogged it from the start. It began adding more classes and further developing its programs, to the point where students now say UCF means 'Under Construction Forever.' The budding Research Park, meanwhile, strengthened UCF's high-tech reputation.
UCF's more recent reputation for quality, McFall says, has made it the third most popular choice for students statewide. And, as he points out, "It's tough to commute from Miami."
Recently, the Florida Board of Regents approved UCF's five-year, 10,000-student growth plan. Regent James Heekin says there's no other choice: Over the next five years, he says, the number of Florida high-school graduates will increase 35 percent. Add to that the thousands of community-college graduates who are guaranteed admission into a state university. "Who can handle the most students?" he asks. FSU and UF, he says, are tapped. So, quite willingly, UCF grows.
For the most part, community leaders back the university's decision. A powerful and prestigious university, they think, will attract high-tech, high-end jobs. But in asserting, is UCF ignoring the concerns of those most affected by its expansion?
Bill Merck, UCF's vice president for administration and finance, doesn't think so. The growth, he says, is a response to the community's need. In turn, he says, the university has created a thriving technology corridor that is the very lure for many of the subdivisions the complainers live in. The growing population rejuvenates the economy, bringing services to support the influx of students. "It's a symbiotic relationship," he says.
At the same time, he adds, the university's enrollment boom is nothing new. "What [McFall] was referring to," Merck says, "was a boom in facilities growth. The head count has been steadily increasing since 1968. It will keep growing for a number of years." Indeed, as recently as 1992, UCF enrollment totaled 21,682; today, it's more than 33,600.
Right now, UCF has committed $322 million to more than 30 construction projects -- dorms, parking garages and several classroom buildings. That growth, says UCF engineering professor Burton Eno, is a feather in the administration's cap, a way for UCF President John Hitt and company to establish prestige and leave a legacy. "The emphasis has been placed on research," says Eno, a critic of the university's growth. "Way in last place is providing housing -- [it's] not as prestigious. They've kind of ignored it."
Not true, Merck insists. While he declines to say UCF will build more than the 1,600 beds already under construction, he implies that it might. If the demand isn't filled when the new dorms open in 2002, he says, UCF may well build more on-campus dorms. "The point," he says, "is that it would be imprudent for us to commit to more housing. We'll play it by ear -- I think we can deal with it."
New residents who buy homes near the university, he thinks, are well aware of UCF's presence and all that it entails. "Our interest is providing educational services," he says. "We'll let market forces take care of [housing]. We'll let those things play out. I think it will work out in the end."
Neighbors interpret that as "I don't care," a sentiment cemented by statements made about them. Regent Heekin, for example, likens the critics to people "moving next to an airport and complaining about the noise."
Adds McFall: "The residential complexes came after UCF. When I'm looking for a house, I'm mindful of what's near."
"[That's] the arrogant attitude of the university," counters Dorian. "Why should we have known what was coming when [the university] didn't know what was coming?"
"That's a pretty selfish attitude," Jones echoes, "to say we were here first and the rest of you be damned."
Many of the neighbors still hope the Orange County Commission might flex its muscle and maybe pressure the university to help solve the problem that UCF's growth has created. "It's like having a task force saying the people causing the problem don't have any responsibility," Jones laments. "It seems almost nonsensical to me."
UCF says it's re-examining its student-housing goals. Next year, it will hold public discussions on a new master plan, which will deal with traffic and construction issues, and observers expect significant participation from UCF's neighbors. At the very least, that plan will set land aside in case UCF decides more housing is required, says Merck.
Meanwhile, what he terms a "snowballing effect" will continue. University enrollment will increase, possible growing UCF into one of the largest schools in the country. The university's ties to industry will bring even more people to the area -- with support businesses in tow. To UCF, this is inevitable.
To Eno, it's a disaster. "It's a locomotive out of control," he says. "Ten or 20 years down the road, this is going to be a devastated area."