Ohio University Board of Trustees approved a plan this month to reduce real estate spending on unused and abandoned spaces. The plan names 21 buildings, including portions of The Ridges, Lasher and Haning halls, for lease or potential sale.
The potential sale of surplus buildings may look like a loss for the university; however, Dominick Brook, the director of real estate at OU, explained that it may be beneficial to sell these properties if they do not have a specific purpose.
“The university is looking to become more efficient and effective,” Brook said. “We have a lot of real estate that hasn’t been contributing to the academic mission of the university. If (a property) can’t contribute academically and if (the university) can’t lease it to contribute financially, that is what determines whether to move onto a sale.”
The Ridges Building 5 was formerly used as an Annex of the Athens Mental Hospital.
Brook said that his team works closely with departments like facilities management and looks at factors such as space usage and financial costs when considering which buildings get demolished, leased, sold or maintained.
While the university will benefit from selling abandoned properties that do not serve any purpose, other campus buildings like Scott Quad are worth maintaining for student and faculty use.
The plan approved by the Board of Trustees also outlines plans to remove certain campus buildings like Scott Quad, a beloved dorm appreciated for its proximity to classroom buildings and more.
Although the Board of Trustees announced intentions to renovate the dorm in August, the board now approved its demolition because of its current vacancy and high amount of deferred maintenance.
OU has accumulated over $500 million in deferred maintenance, which is delayed repairs and upkeep of campus buildings, including residence halls and classrooms. After a certain time period of usage for products in a dorm or classroom, the needed upkeep or replacement is considered deferred maintenance.
Built in 1937, the property was used as army training units and housing for men and women over the years. Most recently it housed departments of OUPD and UCM, as well as classrooms and a residence hall.
Steve Wood, chief facilities officer at OU, said that the decision to demolish Scott Quad included factors such as the need for housing and office space on campus, how the space was currently being used and how the space aligned to the university’s future needs.
“When we looked at the number of residence halls and rooms that we had, Housing and Residence Life determined that they didn’t need it as a residence hall anymore,” Wood said. “Then the spaces that had been used for administrative offices were basically not very efficient for their use … And to the point where it’s just not fully occupied and the cost to not just restore it to what it is, but to renovate it to a usable function to the university, became prohibitive.”
“That dorm was perfect to me.”—Kim Czulewicz
Kim Czulewicz, a senior studying psychology, lived in Scott Quad during the 2018-2019 school year. She said that she loved her experience and felt as though the dorms were in decent condition, and she doesn't remember having any issues that required maintenance.
“The placement of the dorm itself was perfect, and I loved that as well,” Czulewicz said in an email.
Czulewicz was disappointed to hear that the dorm will be demolished, as she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else her freshman year.
“That dorm was perfect to me,” Czulewicz said in an email. “Even living in a New South dorm the following year, nothing compared to Scott Quad. With the personalized brick paintings and the floor plans, the courtyard and the RAs there, it was a great dorm that I always recommended to people and I wish they would just renovate it rather than demolish it.”
Another factor that determined Scott Quad’s removal is the lack of student interest in living there. Jneanne Hacker, interim executive director of Housing and Residence Life, said Housing and Residence Life’s data showed many first year students did not choose Scott Quad as their first choice residence hall.
Data may have shown a lack of interest, but Czulewicz argued that she felt a sense of belonging and community that the dorm intended to give students.
“Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and being a part of the hall council in Scott Quad, we always made sure everyone felt like they were in a good community and we let everyone have a say in events we did which was great.” Czulewicz said in an email.
The biggest reason for the university’s removal of Scott Quad is that it is currently vacant and demolishing it is cheaper than the needed upkeep or renovations.
Wood also explained that the yearly cost for upkeep of campus buildings through department salaries, including management and safety budgets, and materials is around $25 million, and utilities is $11 million.
It might need a few renovations, but if it was in good enough condition to house students a few years ago, there’s no reason why OU should be so quick to get rid of it.
Hacker said that the department has outlined a plan as to what halls will be shut down and what halls the university will invest in, including Scott Quad. The plan will ultimately save the university money because of the large amount of deferred maintenance.
The plan the Board of Trustees approved will take place over the next five years, and the university expects to see profits because of it during that time. However, it is expected to spend $13 million, including demolition, during the project. The results will save the university $20 million that they would have spent upkeeping the buildings and will reduce annual upkeep expenses by $1.5 million.
While the demolition of Scott Quad is unnecessary, the selling of other surplus properties, such as portions of the Ridges and Hebbardsville farm, are essential in helping to raise revenue for the university.
The Ridges operated as a mental hospital from 1874 to 1993, when OU purchased the property.
The portions of the Ridges up for potential sale or leasing include buildings two, three, four and five. Building five, which currently houses the University Movers Department that employs three full-time employees to transport items around campus, was once used as an annex of the Athens Mental Hospital. Buildings two, three and four formerly housed female patients of the former Athens Lunatic Asylum and are connected to the original Kirkbride complex. The main building, based off plans by Thomas Kirkbride popular in the mid 19th-century, is on the National Historic Register.
The majority of these buildings are not currently occupied. Many of the buildings also need asbestos abatement and are in disrepair, one of the many reasons why the university is looking for a partner to lease the properties. The university is not planning to utilize these buildings but hopes that they can still be of use to Athens if an outside entity repairs them.
The Board of Trustees suggested options such as affordable housing and senior housing.
Instead of letting the buildings sit — abandoned and left to deteriorate — the Ridges should be put to better use for the region, and the university can raise revenue it needs to support itself. The Ridges property is essential to the community, and affordable and senior housing are needed desperately.
Another university-owned property for sale is Hebbardsville Farm, acquired by the university in 2001. Located on Hebbardsville Road in Athens, the property consists of over 400 acres. The land includes two historic barns, a residence and several auxiliary buildings that were used when the property was a prison farm.
Since it is unoccupied, the university is currently looking for a strategic partner to lease the property on Hebbardsville farm.
For safety purposes, university officials clap when entering into the buildings to ensure that animals aren’t lurking in the barns. The building is surprisingly still intact, but the panels in the barns are decaying, and the paint is flaking off. There are still remnants of its former life as a prison farm.
In what was a work building, leftover marks of utensils that the prisoners used, including spoons, scissors, and knives, remain on the walls, along with the hooks that once held them. Walking in, it was clear that the history remains behind this property, even though the people don’t.
The university does not currently use most of the land and is exploring options to lease or sell. It would save around $18,000 a year by doing so, a cost that currently is paid for upkeep by the university.
Acquired by Ohio University in 2001, the barns in Hebbardsville Farm remain unused.
Susan Williams, OU professor of anatomy, studies sensorimotor integration in the oral cavity and the physiology and biomechanics of chewing and swallowing. Her research facility is located on Hebbardsville farm.
Williams has been assured by the university that the potential sale of the farmland would have no impact on the facility, it would just be the unused barns, buildings and land.
“The land that would be sold is across the street from the facility and that part does not get much university-related use that I am aware of,” Williams said in an email. “I have been assured that there would be no impact on the research facility. Whatever happens to the property, I hope it facilitates better maintenance of that section of Hebbardsville Road.”
The university keeping a hold of abandoned properties like Hebbardsville farm is not only unnecessary, but it’s also a shame considering the current budget issue that was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It demonstrates that the university doesn’t act on its priorities.
The Hebbardsville farm property includes two historic farms a residence and several auxiliary buildings that were used when the property was a prison farm.
Brook claimed that the university budget issue due to the pandemic did not solely determine the selling of these surplus properties. However, it later increased the urgency of doing so.
“Discussions (of leasing and selling) were happening pre-COVID, but COVID really did accelerate discussions,” Brook said. “As buildings became less occupied, it was easier to move forward. And with the budget position at the moment, it made sense to accelerate this as well.”
OU released a statement in May 2020 describing the university's budget issue and the decision to lay off staff. Written by former President Duane Nellis, it stated that 53 instruction faculty members were issued non-renewal notices and had a net reduction of 94 administrative staff members.
Carly Leatherwood, a university spokesperson, only commented that the university did not significantly reduce faculty overall during the layoffs because of the pandemic.
No matter what positions these people had, they were relying on the university to make a living. They were staff who deserved to be fought for by OU.
Joseph McLaughlin, a professor in the college of arts and science and vice president of OU’s chapter of American Association of University Professors, acknowledged that it is a longer process to get rid of these properties than it is to lay off staff.
“I do think that (the university) is trying to do what they can to raise revenue,” McLaughlin said. “While I agree it would be better to sell off surplus property than to fire people, something I believe they didn’t need to do, I also understand that, regrettably, it might take longer to unload surplus real estate than to fire people. The latter is quick and dirty.”
McLaughlin said that he believed that the university seems to be distancing itself from its original values, which he described as “grounded in residential undergraduate education and centers of excellence in research.” He wonders what this means for the university’s future and what message it sends to current and potential students.
“ I also understand that, regrettably, it might take longer to unload surplus real estate than to fire people. The latter is quick and dirty.”—Joseph McLaughlin
“The administration, and possibly the Board of Trustees, seem less committed to the university’s strengths and identity … than to a future in which the University has a larger virtual presence,” McLaughlin said. “Ohio University needs to trumpet its strengths in offline education and that takes brick and mortar. So I do wonder about the sell off in response to what may prove to be a short term dip in enrollments.”
The university must sell the surplus in order to generate revenue and retain its original values. It’s outrageous that OU was so quick to lay off employees but was hesitant to get rid of completely abandoned properties.
Places like The Ridges and Hebbardsville Farm could do more for the community if they are leased or sold. And hopefully, the university returns its original values back to its students in the future.