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ISU Seeks Public-Private Partnership For Major Housing Project

Cardinal Court
Illinois State University
ISU previously used a public-private partnership for the Cardinal Court student apartments, which opened in 2012.

Illinois State University is looking for a development partner on a major student housing project that would add up to 1,200 on-campus beds.

The public-private partnership would “grow and diversify” ISU’s on-campus housing, now limited to several aging dorms and the newer Cardinal Court apartments, according to a request for proposals (RFP) issued Dec. 21. ISU wants pod-style housing units (bedrooms connected to a shared living space) “to meet the needs of single, undergraduate, freshman, sophomore, junior and senior students in a housing type not currently available on the campus,” the RFP reads.

PDF: Read the full specification documents for the RFP.

Developers have until Jan. 29 to submit proposals. The new housing would open for fall 2021.

"We have to make sure we're upping our game just to maintain where we're at enrollmentwise."

The project signals a change in ISU’s student housing strategy. After demolishing several dorms and pushing students into off-campus apartments, ISU is now moving in the other direction. Only 6,000 of ISU’s 20,000 students live on campus today.

ISU officials say there are educational benefits to living on campus, especially for younger students. ISU requires freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, but today there’s not enough room for everyone. Many sophomores get exemptions to live off campus.

"We know that having a freshman and sophomore requirement plays into the retention of students," Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson said Friday.

ISU recently completed a study of its on-campus housing. That study, done by consultant Brailsford & Dunlavey, found ISU lacks enough on-campus housing for sophomores.

"We are expecting fewer people to be graduating from high school. Competition is as strong as it's ever been between (higher education) institutions," Johnson told GLT. "We have to make sure we're upping our game just to maintain where we're at enrollmentwise."

Public-Private Partnership

At this early stage, Johnson said it's unclear how much ISU money would be required for the project.

ISU says the public-private partnership “may include an operating agreement that has the option to culminate in University ownership of the asset after a stated period of time,” according to the RFP. ISU previously used a public-private partnership for the Cardinal Court student apartments, which opened in 2012.

ISU’s new RFP doesn’t specify where the project would be built. Developers need to pitch ideas on ISU-owned land or something they already own close to campus.

There are several options for where it could go. ISU acquired the site of a now-shuttered Normal fire station on Adelaide Street in 2015, possibly to accommodate expansion at Cardinal Court. Johnson said another option was the now-vacant land east of Main Street near Avanti’s, where the South Campus dorms stood until they were demolished in 2012.

Off-Campus Market

The addition of 1,200 on-campus beds would have major implications for local landlords. 

The off-campus student housing business has changed drastically in the last decade, when ISU closed (and later demolished) two giant dorms and pushed 1,500 students into the private sector. Landlords—many of them developers themselves—have responded by building fancier and fancier apartments, trying to meet the demands of a modern student.

Johnson said ISU has no plans to drastically grow total enrollment beyond the 20,000 to 21,000 range where it is now. As the supply-and-demand equation changes, what's ISU message to off-campus apartment owners?

"There's opportunities for them as it relates to upperclass students and graduate students," Johnson said. "Just as we remain concerned about making sure the quality of the student experience we provide in our residential environments is at the top, in order to retain them, I'd have our partners in the community who are housing our students consider that too. Maybe the focus shifts then to upgrading and maintaining whatever existing facilities they have, and providing the highest quality that they might be able to do as well."

Developers who are finalists for the project will be notified during the week of Feb. 11, with finalist proposals and presentations due Feb. 25. Site visits will be in March and April.

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