Waterville Next? The downtown dorm and its impact

As Colby moves to distinguish itself among elite higher education institutions, one of the primary undertakings concerns the revitalization of downtown Waterville. Over the past few years, the College has purchased several properties on Main Street, dedicating the spaces to administrative offices, rental spaces, a boutique hotel, and, perhaps most importantly, a state-of-the-art student apartment complex.

The downtown dorm will accommodate 200 students, each of whom will have a single room (with a full size bed) within four- and six-person apartments. The apartments will also sport fully applianced kitchens, including dishwashers and granite countertops. With plentiful common areas in the building, catering to students’ social as well as academic needs, the downtown dorm “does represent a quality of living that we aspire to, frankly, much more broadly across the campus,” said Vice President of Planning Brian Clark in an interview with the Echo.

The only glaring downside to this complex seems to be the limited parking spaces. Although there will only be roughly 50 parking spots available for residents, whic is less than one spot per apartment–,and overnight parking on Main Street is forbidden by the the City, a Colby-sponsored shuttle will run almost 24/7 on approximately 15 minute loops between Main Street and Mayflower Hill.

Unfortunately, the increase in beds and physical spaces through the new dorm does not promise 

an alleviation of the overpopulated areas on campus. While Colby adds 200 beds, it also brings to an end independent off-campus living options. In any given year, approximately 85-115 students opt to make their own housing accommodations, avoiding the Colby housing lottery and Residential Life. However, after the downtown dorm opens in the fall of 2018, the College will eliminate that option. Thus, Campus Life will not fully eliminate cramped spaces on campus. Especially considering the trend of rising class sizes, there can be no guarantee of getting common rooms back or reducing number of lofted, or “forced”, triples.

“Our applicant pool increased dramatically, by about 117 percent over the last three years. If you look at national data, typically what happens with that is that your yield goes down… our yield actually increased by 3-4 percentage points last year, which is great because it means the demand for Colby has never been higher. So as we look at that and model it out… we come pretty close to our target this year, but there are other factors at play… We have been intentionally growing the size of the classes, but they are moderate increases… If Colby is the size of about 2000 right now, if you were to add 10-20 students per class, roughly speaking, it doesn’t add that much,” Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Matt Proto commented. While fractional increments may seem imperceptible, the difference between occupying a forced triple versus an already modest double is not.

Indeed, the downtown dorm’s niceties draw a stark contrast with forced triples, discolored water on Frat Row, tiny doubles even as juniors, and other inconveniences that are products of overpopulation and aging structures on Mayflower Hill. The amenities in the downtown complex are based largely on student input, and students’ requests for more apartment-style housing, common and study spaces, and single-room availability clearly demonstrate a dissatisfaction with the current state of residential options on campus.

Although the new dorm is a step in the right direction, offering optimal living spaces for upperclassmen, its distance from campus exacerbates frustrations by establishing the amenities not as a new standard but rather a deviation from the norm: experiencing the benefits of the new dorm is a trade-off with being on campus in the heart of the Colby community. Distancing the dorm distances the possibility of normalizing its perks.

The caveat to living in the downtown apartments is its civic engagement requirement. The Office of Campus Life, currently devising the application for living there together with Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94, will expect each resident to complete a currently undefined number of weekly civic engagement hours. Some examples of qualifying service include participating in a Colby Volunteer Center (CVC) program, mentoring through Colby Cares About Kids (CCAK), taking a course that has an associated civic engagement project, completing an internship at a social service agency, or conducting research for a public policy paper based on the Waterville municipality – ultimately, any form of involvement with the community. Selected faculty and staff members –whom Burrell-McRae and her team will vet and appoint in the upcoming months– will live in the complex and oversee students’ service endeavors.

One concern with this loosely-defined concept of civic engagement is whether it will undermine the seriousness of community service and involvement: will the dorm’s alluring features prompt students to apply regardless of whether they plan to respect or uphold the central pillar of civic engagement? James Lindberg ’19 recognizes that, “there will be a good number of applicants because it’s going to be a cool living space and the rooms are going to be really fricking nice. I mean, civic engagement aside, they’re going to be nice rooms. If I were a sophomore and thinking, ‘Oh I can be a junior and have an apartment that is better than the Alfond Senior Apartments,’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I can do civic engagement.’” Although such a mentality may help fill the dorm –which Proto and Clark feel confident about– it taints the intended spirit of the dorm.

Still, Lindberg contends that “No one wants to be an a**hole. Civic engagement just inherently feels good.” He continues, “everyone in some capacity enjoys civic engagement and wants to civically engage, they just haven’t necessarily found the way that is right for them.” For him, that is through telling stories. Lindberg currently focuses his efforts on creating a story lab, based on Storycorps, the national radio program that gives voice to community stories. Either the downtown dorm or one of the Colby-owned buildings on Main Street will house the lab, which he hopes  will be a “space that is comfortable and has a purpose is important, because we’re hoping to get some stories.” There, Colby students will record Waterville reports, sharing them on an internet platform and professionally producing a handful of them. Essentially, Lindberg’s goal is to “celebrate Waterville stories” fully and vibrantly.

To Clark, the civic engagement theme outlines the “intentionality of how you connect the residential experience to the academic experience… You can have students living off-campus, have faculty in residence, connect them really deeply with what’s happening with your core academic program, and then have them engage in the community in a really meaningful way, working with local agencies and so forth to multiply that impact of having students not just economically, but civically and socially there as well.”

Although Colby’s “master plan does identify potential locations on campus where new residences could be built… we haven’t identified timing or funding or, frankly, demand for it just yet,” Clark shared. Eventually Colby will see a new residential building on Mayflower Hill, but it is “premature to know” when that will be. Constructing a new living space downtown rather than on-campus stems from a prioritization of the Colby-Waterville relationship and the City’s economic state. With 200 students living on Main Street, plus hundreds of new workers for the tech company CGI (which leased office space in the Colby-owned building across the street from the new apartment complex), the local economy will see a major revival.

According to Clark, the purpose of setting this student apartment complex off-campus is to bring “some real activity to Main Street to catalyze economic development and growth… We need more people living and working in downtown Waterville to really expand that economic base on the street to support existing businesses in much more significant ways and to allow us to attract new and additional businesses to Waterville, and, ultimately, job creation.”

Additionally, embedding the dorm in the community serves as a major platform for its civic engagement theme. For instance, the building’s ground floor will feature a multi-purpose seminar room to host community forums and events. Colby’s physical presence downtown, the College hopes, will “break down the barriers” that forge the current Colby-Waterville divide. Fundamentally, the dorm’s location helps realize the twin goals of direct economic stimulation and integrated and purposeful residential experiences for Colby students.

Proto recalls the history of mutualistic support between Colby and Waterville. Before Colby occupied the Mayflower Hill campus, it resided downtown. Upon facing economic issues, the City of Waterville purchased the land on the Hill and gifted it to the College in order to keep the institution alive. From then on, Colby sought to honor the gesture, and now this program is “building on that great tradition and history and taking it to the next level.”

This thought resonates with Lindberg, who thinks the undertaking is a “way to reestablish respect and relationship with the downtown.” However, some students question the effectiveness of the potentially patronizing approach to revitalizing Waterville. Colby’s investment in the City seems to many a form of gentrification that builds up Waterville at the expense of certain businesses that have stood on and around Main Street for decades.

One female student of the Class of 2020, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed the process “is very imposing and it’s [going to] create a lot of negative reactions before it creates any positive feelings because it was a lot all at once and it will be a lot for the community to take in because it’s just huge. I don’t think it was the best first step.”

On the other hand, while Clark admitted that this endeavor does, “to a certain degree” gentrify the area, he sees it more as a “shared commitment to a place.” He explained that “combining this [project] with the possibility of program, with the possibility of partnership, and the possibility of civic engagement makes it something much more broader than what would be classified as a gentrification exercise or a pure economic development initiative. To me it’s much more significant than that.”

To some students, however, it seems quite different. “Colby’s big spiel for this is to improve the Waterville community and help local businesses, but I’ve heard about many local businesses going out because of raised taxes. If Colby wanted to help the community, there are a lot of preliminary steps they could have done to actually help before constructing a dorm,”  Katie Morena ’20 said.

Similarly, students question whether the sense of entitlement sometimes associated with Colby students may further permeate the community with the construction of the dorm. Morena observes that “the students who can afford to live downtown might not always be representing the school in the most respectful manner. Even if they have a meal plan, the price of being off campus will be that students will feel pressured to eat out, helping local businesses. I also think that the students who will be more open to living in the dorm off campus will be those who have cars or have access to cars, even though there will be a shuttle set up, so I think that a lot of the students that will end up living in those dorms are probably going to be somewhat privileged and might not represent the student body as a whole. Still, they will be taken as face value representatives of the College, for better or for worse. It’s not that I think it will be bad. It could go either way.”

There are also concerns about what this complex means for the campus community. Although the College is taking control of all housing, prohibiting independent off-campus living accommodations  will not necessarily bring the community closer together in combination with isolation of a large number of students from the physical Colby community. In addition, the dorm’s theme targets highly involved community members whose presence and time on Mayflower Hill would potentially diminish. Still, Clark hopes “over time that this dichotomous relationship between on-campus and off-campus becomes more blurred.”

In contrast, Proto believes “we’re creating even more community that’s tied to Colby” by moving off-campus residents back to the Hill and having 200 others downtown but still integrated through Colby housing. While he recognizes that “there will be a cultural shift,” he also expressed a belief that things will normalize “over time.”

When probed about the relation between this undertaking and the presence of underground fraternities, he admitted that “it’s hard to say” whether these groups will lose social leverage now that they will not have off-campus houses. Clark agreed that the downtown dorm “wasn’t designed to think about [the frats], however it does have a relationship to it, and we want to be vigilant about it.”

Ultimately, their message is that the dorm will help foster a “collaborative culture and a culture of shared success, one that engages our community and Waterville,” in the words of Proto. He also pointed to the reported excitement on behalf of prospective students. Surely, a more developed and vibrant downtown, paired with the dorm’s interior luxuries, will become a crucial selling point that may draw students to Colby. However, some current students have raised concerns about whether the school is shifting focus from the Colby community to the greater Waterville community, at the expense of the cherished amity that brings Colby students together.

For Gabrielle Fagan ’20, that seems to be one of the larger issues with this new complex: “In reality, [the administration] didn’t gauge interest in how many students would want to live there… Most of the people I’ve spoken to don’t want to live downtown because of gentrification, transportation, and the draw of a small liberal arts college’s cute, little campus, which is the pull towards Colby.”

What atmosphere will exist within the downtown apartment building still remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the dorm will spark  student ideas and discussion while benefiting many by offering luxurious living spaces and a platform to test and expand projects beyond the college bubble. Despite the controversy surrounding the economic and social benefits it will bring to Waterville, as Clark said, this dorm still “sets a high watermark for what our aspirations are in terms of the quality of experience for students.”

“There is such little space for students on campus, so it makes sense to add another dorm, but I think it’s so cheap to write it off as if it’s all for the Waterville community when in reality it is so self-serving,” Morena commented.