Adding a building to a college campus is never easy. Between the limited space on-campus and the usual town-gown challenges, colleges and universities must be both creative and persistent if they want to expand.

For urban schools, growing is even tougher—but it can be done. In 2003, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., opened University Village, which now provides student housing and retail in a formerly blighted neighborhood. It wasn't easy. To build 960 beds (in 278 units) of student housing and more than 50,000 square feet of retail for a price tag of about $55 million, the school had to accumulate plots of land from almost 30 owners. Moreover, the development company, Ambling Cos. of Valdosta, Ga., had to overcome space limitations in construction.

East Side Story

LONG HAUL: The Franklin Park Tenants Association finally got their affordable, for-sale townhomes.
LONG HAUL: The Franklin Park Tenants Association finally got their affordable, for-sale townhomes.

Old Dominion administrators had known for years that they needed to do something about the east side of campus. The area, which was full of old college bars, subdivided houses, car repair and detailing shops, and dilapidated warehouses, wasn't something they wanted to advertise on recruiting brochures for the Tidewater Virginia school.

When the university developed its master plan in the mid-'90s, administrators saw an opportunity to add much-needed facilities to campus and improve the school's east-side surroundings. The first order of business was a new sports stadium and parking. ODU had been holding its commencements and playing basket-ball in the outdated Norfolk Scope arena for years.

There also was an opportunity for retail. “One of the most affluent demographics in the city is on one side of the university,” says Kevin Larkin, a Bank of America senior vice president who worked on the deal. “But it's a generally underserved part of city from the retail perspective.”

Finally, student housing was a must. It had been 20 years since new housing was built for ODU's roughly 16,000 students. Though the college had a reputation as a commuter school, the 2,400 beds on campus weren't enough to meet the growing demand for on-campus housing. “We were finding that students had a much greater interest in living at or near the institution,” says Bob Fenning, vice president for administration and finance at the university. “But those opportunities didn't exist.”

Money Talks After planning the residential portion of University Village, ODU faced the next step: buying 12 acres for the site from 29 different owners. Although the school had the option of condemning the sites, it only had to do so on two occasions (and both of these were title issues). “We had been approached by several owners in the footprint area who had indicated a desire to sell,” says Julie Adie, director of real estate development for the Old Dominion University Real Estate Foundation, which owned the land. “We negotiated successfully, in a timely fashion, and at a cost that was less than going through the condemnation process for both parties.”

As the foundation accumulated the needed land, Adie says, it tried to be as flexible as possible, hiring movers to help renters who live in the homes being bought and getting real estate agents for the business owners who needed new sites.

It also didn't hurt that the foundation pooled its own money with a loan from Bank of America, giving it the cash to close deals up front. It's a strategy that can help sway an undecided seller, but it gets expensive. “The foundation had to put out a lot of money before the deal to front these purchases,” Larkin says.

Cash didn't work in every case. One landowner initially refused to sell—but that didn't slow construction. Ambling started building before ODU's foundation secured the plot of land, which was intended as the parking lot for one of the apartment buildings. “We could have finished building around it, but parking would have been a mess,” Larkin says.