Dartmouth calls time out on plan to build dorm complex in field along Lyme Road

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/22/2022 9:47:11 PM
Modified: 2/22/2022 9:46:48 PM

HANOVER — Facing vocal objections from nearby residents and faculty members, Dartmouth College said it would “pause” its plan to build a new “apartment-style” undergraduate student housing complex on the east side of Lyme Road and across from the former Hanover County Club.

The decision complicates, at least for now, a key component of the college’s new “master plan” that foresees expanding the college into the plain of undeveloped land more than a mile north of the core Dartmouth campus in the heart of Hanover.

Dartmouth, facing a housing crunch and expectations that demand for campus residency only will increase in the years ahead, unveiled in October a plan to develop sections along the east side of Lyme Road known as Garipay Field and south where the golf team practices to build an apartment complex that would accommodate about 400 undergraduate students.

From the outset the proposal saw opposition from neighborhood residents, some of whom include members of the Dartmouth faculty who have been vocal in challenging the plan, saying that a dormitory located more than a mile from the heart of the campus would negatively affect students’ experience.

Then on Monday, hours after college faculty members at their annual winter meeting voted, 89-4, to petition the college to “pause” the plan, Dartmouth agreed to a delay.

“In light of the faculty’s concerns, we have made the decision to take some time and broaden our evaluation of the project,” Rick Mills, executive vice president at Dartmouth, said in a news post on the college’s website.

Dartmouth said the “initial planning phase” of the residential complex, which is targeted for the open, flat Garipay sports playing greensward, would be extended another three months to explore the project’s “impact on the undergraduate student experience, transportation and traffic considerations, and maintaining important community recreation spaces.”

Rebecca Hooper Holland, a Lyme Road resident spearheading a neighborhood group of about 150 people challenging the project, said she is “optimistic the message from the faculty got through.”

As initially conceived, the Lyme Road complex is designed to serve as a “swing space” — that is, an interim residence — while the college embarks on a program to upgrade 60% of existing undergraduate dorms over the next 12 years.

Although the master plan identifies other locations around Hanover as targets for student housing, Dartmouth administrators have said those sites are too encumbered with engineering, zoning and cost challenges to meet the pressing, near-term need to accommodate the projected influx of students.

“The master plan does lay out other sites for housing, but they have a degrees of complexity which makes them difficult to unlock,” said Josh Keniston, vice president of campus services at Dartmouth who oversees planning and construction at the college.

Faculty members said they are keenly aware that their opposition to an undergraduate residence complex near where many happen to live could be viewed by others as an example of not-in-my-backyard reaction. But they said they oppose the plan because it would place those students at a distinct disadvantage in accessing the benefits of living on the main campus.

“If it were good for the students, then Dartmouth should build it and everyone should ignore the neighborhood,” said Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth who lives on Curtis Road, a few blocks from Garipay Field. But Nyhan believes an undergraduate residence complex so far from the main campus would undermine the reason students attend Dartmouth in the first place.

“Putting up undergraduate apartments a mile and a half from campus breaks up the residential and intellectual community that is Dartmouth’s comparative advantage,” he said.

Dartmouth says that the student housing shortage has become more acute since the pandemic began two years ago because it has upended study abroad programs that freed up dorm space for returning students who otherwise would be forced off campus. But even as the pandemic subsides and relieves the crunch for on-campus housing, the college’s dorm upgrade program will take residences offline during renovation, meaning those beds must be found elsewhere.

The overwhelming majority of Dartmouth students, according to a survey Keniston’s department recently undertook and is now analyzing, indicated that Lyme Road would not be their first choice in campus housing. But Keniston said that 17% of the students, when it was proposed that the units would include a kitchen, dishwasher and other “apartment-style amenities,” responded favorably.

“That’s obviously not a huge number, but what it tells us is that’s enough to get a voluntary number of students that would want to go out and fill this complex. ... We want the vast majority of our students living in residence halls, but as they get into later years, they look for more independence,” he said.

Keniston said the administration is taking faculty and neighborhood concerns seriously — the loss of open recreation fields is a big issue among area residents — and incorporating them into the design and function of the residential complex, which could include a “programming” element so “students don’t feel isolated.

Still, even if some students would elect to live at the Lyme Road complex, faculty still question whether that’s the best experience for them.

“The faculty have a lot of respect for the thought and work that Josh Keniston and (director of campus planning) Joanna Whitcomb have put into developing a proposal,” classics professor Margaret Graver said via email. “But we feel the site 1.4 miles north on Lyme Road isn’t a great choice for undergraduate housing — it’s too far for the residential nature of the undergraduate experience, and it could potentially impact community relations due to noise, traffic, loss of green space.

“While Dartmouth does have a need for more student housing while some of the central-campus dorms are renovated, we’d like the College to choose sites closer in to the traditional campus.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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