We’re introducing a new segment here at TheCityOfMorgantown: Two Guys Talking About… The two guys are locals Aaron Hawley and myself, Sam Wilkinson. We wanted to have a chat about the recent demolitions of the Sunnyside neighborhood, as this represents a significant change in a place that we’ve watched go from bad to worse during our 30+ years here in town. We both wanted to publicly consider what’s be done, what’s been proposed, and what we think at least a few of the spillover effects will be.
My comments will be italicized; Aaron’s are bolded.
Let’s be honest: Sunnyside was an ongoing nightmare, and the only way to start a genuine rehabilitation process was to tear much of it to the ground. Still, I am deeply troubled that such a process inevitably ended rewarding all of the wrong people. Whether it was the negligent landlords who never bothered to give a damn about the property they owned, city officials who never pursued alternate avenues of neighborhood maintenance, irresponsible students who spent decades degrading the place, or university officials who long adopted a “not our problem” attitude about the slums, all of been allowed off the hook and, in many cases, were handsomely rewarded for their misbehavior.
Your first point is absolutely correct: something DID need to be done in SunnySide and the logical first step is to totally raze the place. I understand that people making huge payday a in the process really chaps you, but to me it seems besides the point. This is America, anytime anybody does anything somebody’s going to get paid. Wouldn’t a much worse outcome have been that negligent landlords DIDN’T get paid, continued to hold their properties, rule their fiefdom and collect rent from mom and dad in Jersey? The problem would’ve continued into perpetuity at the low low price of having a few students killed annually in housefires. To me, while the payday some of the landlords recieved may seem obscene, nothings more offensive that students dying in easily preventable housefires, something that is unfortunately all to common in Morgantown.
Have there been housefires in Sunnyside? I know they’ve hit the College Avenue houses and I thought there was one in Lower Greenmont. I suppose it’s saying something that I can’t even keep track anymore. And yes, I agree that people are going to end up getting paid. Change isn’t possible without it. So how about this: will these demolitions be the start of a substantive cultural change in that area? Will the construction of new and presumably nice(r) student housing end up mattering? Are those demolitions the end of Sunnyside as we’ve come to know it?
I think it is saying something that they just aren’t memorable anymore. I know a few people whose lives were irrevocably altered because of the rat-trap they lived in college. My friends survived their fire, but one of their roomates didn’t and the survivors carry an incredible amount of guilt to this day. While I can’t point specifically to any of the properties that were destroyed, their future use obviously ran that risk. To answer your questions, though: yes, three times. I believe this WILL lead to substantive cultural change directly as a result of the new development. People tend to respect things that are new and nice. We can complain about how the students treated the neighborhood until we’re blue in the face but the reality was, why shouldn’t they trash the place? It had been trashed when they arrived, and they ensured it would be trashed when they left. The students who move into the new complex will be far less likely to destroy the new development than students living in the slums. Towers has stood for 40 years with an even higher concentration of students than Sunnyside, and I can’t imagine the students will treat the new development any differently. I think the eradication of what the students viewed as essentially “disposable housing” will lead to a big cultural change which of course means the end of Sunnyside “as we know it”.
Is the only way to revitalize old neighborhoods then to demolish them? Is that the only hope we’ve got? In nightmare scenarios, like Sunnyside, maybe it is; but surely this shouldn’t become the model throughout town, should it? Woodburn, Greenmont, Wiles Hill all still ideally have a future that doesn’t involve thorough demolition, don’t they? Maybe that’s asking too many questions, and before going further, I should make clear that amongst my long-term ideal goals for the city is a return, at least in part, to the sort of neighborhoods that we’re becoming extinct (and which are now basically gone) as were growing up: a small shop, a local bar, etc. The schools (probably) won’t come back, but creating smaller gathering places for people so that a sense of micro-community can arrive is an ideal worth striving for. Maybe the new storefronts in Sunnyside will allow for this. And if that’s what it takes to achieve such outcomes then perhaps I need to get a job as a bulldozer operator.
First off, I’m sure you’d look swell in a hard hat. The question you ask is both a yes and no question. Is the only way to revitalize a neighborhood to demolish it? No, of course not. Did Sunnyside need to be demolished? Absolutely. The chief difference between Sunnyside and the neighborhoods you mentioned is that those other neighborhoods still have usable buildings. Sunnyside had a series of decaying buildings that were pretty much beyond repair. There was no incentive for the landlords to repair their properties, either with a culture of destruction surrounding their properties. I think giving the students something they recognize as new and nice will change things dramatically. Creating gathering spaces on the storefront level would do a lot to achieve a sense of community, but it would still have to be a place people WANT to gather. A new Subway isn’t going to do the trick. I feel the most a part of the local community in Morgantown when I’m belly up to the bar at Gene’s, so I’d love to see the developers include a tavern but I’m really not holding my breath for that one.
A new Subway ISN’T going to do the trick, you’re right, but what sort of community institutions are possible? I imagine a University worried about a party atmosphere isn’t especially interested in allowing for bars down there. What else is there? A pizza place? A barbershop? Just thinking about this reminds me of my own suspicions about what is being promised. It’s worth remembering that this won’t be the first development in the Sunnyside(ish) area that has promised to include gathering spots. Both the ill-fated Augusta on the Square nonsense and the corner development on University and Stewart were supposed to include places for business. Neither ever delivered. What’s binding the university to deliver what has been promised this time?
Obviously, your suspicions are completely justified considering the false bill of sale we’ve been presented in the past. My concern is that even if there are storefronts, they’ll be homogenized corporate businesses. You can’t really build community in a McDonald’s, but hey, you never know. This University sees fit to sell its own students a beer between classes, so anything can happen. That said, even if no storefronts are included in the new development it should be a boon for downtown businesses across the board, especially if it increases the total number of students in Sunnyside. I have to feel that the over-development of West Run has pushed student shopping dollars to the big box stores and away from downtown. It’s good to keep a steady influx of consumers coming to keep our downtown area going, which is something which has perservered despite all the changes over the last two decades. Morgantown really is lucky to have a thriving downtown, and I think keeping students close (and mommy and daddy’s money closer!) goes a long way towards preserving that.
A brief question: will this new building house MORE people than the ones it replaces? My guess is yes - this starts to create a trickle down effect wherein students return closer to campus, thus leaving the already underfilled developments beyond the city’s borders emptier. Can we start to expect some sort of blowback from that? Will those developers start to complain that WVU is depriving them of their customers? Maybe that’s already begun and I’ve missed it. Of course, I won’t shed a tear if that does occur, but still, it seems like a potentially simmering issue, especially with the second development that’s been announced for the Evansdale area.
I’m assuming it will house more students, if only because it seems to me to be a denser development. That’s just an assumption though. In regards to the developers at West Run: fuck ‘em. Pardon my French. I think, unlike the current development, there was no public-private development partnership so I don’t think they have any leverage to complain, especially not to the University. It’s always struck me as very odd to build apartments for college students miles and miles away from the college itself, but I’m not the guy who made the plan. I also think that the original developers of at least some of those properties sold out pretty quickly, so it’s another group of people entirely who are stuck holding the bag. Intro to Economics has taught me that, eventually, you should be able to rent an apartment at West Run for $50/month. I’m still waiting on that though. Nothing about those developments ever made sense to me. The current plans for Sunnyside at least seem like a reasonable solution to the problem at hand.