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Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

ST. PETERSBURG — Originally pitched as a nine- or 10-story, 550-bed dorm for the overcrowded University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, USF’s latest residence hall project will likely look much different by the time it’s done.

For starters, it’ll be shorter and smaller, likely five or six floors, and with 350 to 400 beds, said the USF System’s senior vice president for business and financial strategy, David Lechner.

And, in a significant change, the university anticipates footing the bill.

"Enter in our new approach," Lechner told USF trustees on June 12. "It’s an internally funded approach."

Three or four years ago, the university settled on the public-private partnership funding model: Partner with a private developer, which will design the project, build it, shoulder the costs and operate it for a profit. After some 40 years, the developer would then hand the complex back to USF.

This approach was seen as a way for USF to sidestep the risks of construction and management, as well as the burden of debt, and still end up owning the building in the long run. That’s how USF funded its new $134 million residential complex at the Tampa campus, called the Village.

USF leaders chose collegiate housing developer EdR to overhaul the lot at Sixth Avenue S, between Third and Fourth Streets S. Officials envisioned a bigger residential foothold in downtown St. Petersburg, where students struggle to find affordable housing. And they hoped it would put a dent in the campus’ commuter image. The dorm, along with a first-floor dining hall, was slated to open in summer 2019.

As the years passed, though, the university reevaluated its approach.

Yes, Lechner told trustees, USF initially went for the partnership to keep debt off of its balance sheet. But over time, that debt coverage was looking leaner, while the USF System’s balance sheet was looking stronger.

"We have to look at these deals with fresh eyes," he said.

And having total control of the project — including the housing rates that students would pay — became more appealing.

"This will allow us to keep our prices where they are," Lechner said.

He said USF won’t know the potential cost until it gets bids back. Shortening the building will help USF avoid costly premiums that come with taller projects, he said. The university still plans on including a dining hall.

USF System President Judy Genshaft said she hopes the project will move quickly through the approval process.

"We know we need it," she said. "We know that the beds are going to be swooped up immediately and filled."

Trustee Stephanie Goforth said the St. Petersburg campus’ board is keeping close tabs on the project.

"Know that we are very committed to this," she said. "We are spending a lot of time making sure this is the right structure, the right process."

A spokesman at EdR did not return a request for comment.

The university now aims to wrap up the project in fall 2020, Lechner said, with construction getting underway in January.

He called the approach "a harbinger of what’s to come" as USF consolidates its separately accredited institutions, including USF St. Petersburg, into one university.

"We’re taking the bond strength we have as a system and pushing it down to the campus debt level," Lechner said. "We’re moving together."

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