A Multistory Failure: How UChicago’s Housing Plan Disappoints

The University’s rapid expansion of the on-campus housing system fails students in lackluster architecture, economic costs, and absence of house culture.

By Luke Contreras

There is nothing a UChicago tour guide enjoys more than telling prospective students that our housing system resembles that of Hogwarts, where students are sorted into houses according to their personalities. Dorms like Burton-Judson, Snell-Hitchcock, and International House may be a Harry Potter fan’s dream come true, but the concept loses some of its appeal with the cold, austere walls of North or the infamous concrete ceilings in Woodlawn Residential Commons. Enchanted gothic gargoyles may be able to teach you the basics of witchcraft and wizardry, but the massive glass windows of Renee Granville-Grossman most certainly will not. Indeed, the minimalist design of our shiny new mega-dorms speaks to a larger issue: The University’s rapid expansion of housing capacity has created disconnected communities, deteriorated house culture, and fundamentally reshaped the character of our campus and Hyde Park.

Two decades ago, before the University constructed its three newest residence halls (which collectively house over 2,900 students—804 and 813 in Renee Granville-Grossman and North and about 1,300 in Woodlawn), living on campus was a more modest experience. First-years and some upperclassmen lived in a series of small satellite dorms located throughout Hyde Park, while the remaining students lived in off-campus apartments due to the former one-year housing requirement. Campus housing was less Hogwarts-esque and more like a small group of welcoming homes composed of like-minded students and resident heads.

But that has changed as housing capacity has expanded significantly in the last decade. In 2008, Dean John Boyer envisioned “a concrete plan that will enable the College to house at least 70 percent of its students in high-quality College housing within easy walking distance of campus by 2013–14.” He yearned to provide a residential experience akin to those of UChicago’s peers in the northeast—namely Yale, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard. Such a system, he hoped, would “encourage stronger and more supportive cultural and intellectual communities” more informally. The opening of Woodlawn Residential Commons on East 61st Street and South Woodlawn Avenue last September achieved the goal of housing at least 70 percent of the undergraduate population.

But have more dorms actually created stronger communities on campus? There is nothing inherently flawed about increasing housing capacity so that more students can live on campus, but the communities that Boyer imagined take more consideration to establish. Residents of the former satellite dorms explained how the locations of their communities contributed to a certain culture and sense of belonging in Hyde Park. Situated further away from the UChicago “bubble,” students could better understand the relationship between UChicago and the South Side. The University decided to retire eight of these satellite dorms, carelessly stripping away their identities in favor of creating a series of brand-new houses stacked on top of each other. Even with the addition of hundreds of beds, the University has historically overpromised the number of spaces available, resulting in their decisions to reopen Breckinridge House after building Max Palevsky Residential Commons and offer apartments at Vue 53 to students. This hasty and less-than-desirable housing situation demonstrates that the University has consistently rushed to increase capacity while at the same time failing to consider the types of environments that shape these communities.

Our modern residence halls have award-winning designs, but they struggle to integrate with the rest of UChicago’s campus. Each house is designed for smaller communities of about 100 students each, but housing a large percentage of undergraduates in this manner requires around 48 houses. The new mega-dorms hold between eight and 11 houses (as opposed to an older dorm such as Burton-Judson, which only has six), resulting in buildings that tower high above the rest of campus. Some expressed their doubts that Campus North would assimilate with the rest of UChicago’s architecture at the time, explaining that its outer concrete façade had little in common with the distinct Gothic style seen on the quads. In the past, UChicago has sought to create architecturally relevant facilities. These include the Charles M. Harper Center, which echoes elements of the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and Robie House, and the Law School, which incorporates the same Indiana limestone used in the quad buildings. Sadly, the newer residence halls fail to live up to the same standard.

Furthermore, the size and newness of these structures lessen the quality of house culture. First-year students at Woodlawn were disappointed with the lack of any traditions, culture, or leadership within their newly-created houses. Keep in mind that 11 out of the 48 houses at UChicago––nearly a fourth––were new this year. Part of what brings a house community together are long-standing activities and traditions. Snell-Hitchcock, the oldest dorm on UChicago’s campus, has a remarkable history deeply rooted in the ideas and experiences of its residents. Its residents, who are known for their success in Scav, hold barbecues, perform in an a cappella group, and create publications. Even when their dorm temporarily became isolation housing this year for students who contracted COVID-19, Snitchcockizens still found ways to preserve their community. Not every house will have the benefit of a history dating back to the early 1900s, but introducing new houses more gradually would give them a better opportunity to develop their own unique identities. The absence of meaningful house culture deprives current students of the community experience that benefited many students in the past.

Above all, the costs of rapidly completing residence halls outweighs the potential benefits. As you may guess, the cost of completing residence halls is high; for example, Campus North came in at a cost of $148 million. This is money that could have gone toward other efforts to provide a more equitable experience to students, which could mean anything from investing in more financial aid to funding research opportunities. With the construction of Woodlawn, University administrators sought to solve this problem by making a compromise: They shifted development, capital, and management responsibilities to a private development and real estate capital company. By doing so, UChicago surrendered most of its involvement in the design process. Woodlawn failed to impress its first round of residents this past year, as students mentioned their dissatisfaction with its concrete ceilings, distant location from the rest of campus, and sensitive fire alarms. North and Woodlawn present a dilemma of either taking on considerable capital investments or settling with less satisfactory designs. In the first case, the University spends money that might have been better used for academically or professionally enriching purposes. The second case results in residence halls that fall short of strengthening small communities of students. Either way, the students incur a cost but receive little in return.

Increasing housing capacity as quickly as possible, unfortunately, seems to have been directed less at the wellbeing of current students and more toward the national perception of the University. Its effort to create this housing environment is in line with their attempts to become more like other elite institutions (such as creating plunging acceptance rates and poaching Ivy League professors). As previously mentioned, the model used by several Ivy League colleges seemed to follow Boyer’s vision for housing more students. The University took this idea too far without considering the perspectives of current students. Residents of the satellite dorms lamented the reality that UChicago would rather rob students of an individualized experience than advertise a less glamorous housing system. Additionally, many rising upperclassmen are eager to move into their own apartments, as outlined in this Maroon editorial from 2017. Architects certainly did an excellent job creating contemporary designs that maintained UChicago’s house structure, but the University had many other reasons behind expansion—to impress prospective students, outclass the dorms of peer institutions, and generate competitive residential statistics. They were developed with the current UChicago student in the periphery.

Rapid expansion has not impacted the communities around our campus positively, either. It is no secret that the University has majorly gentrified Hyde Park and its surrounding neighborhoods in the past few decades, which has pushed out many residents of color. The University pushed to redevelop these areas with new shops and restaurants; one such project saw the “revitalizing” of East 53rd Street. Despite UChicago’s self-proclaimed image as a “redevelopment engine,” some residents of Hyde Park expressed their aversion to new buildings that eliminated much of the neighborhood’s culture. New constructions like Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons and Woodlawn Residential Commons rise higher than many structures in the adjacent Woodlawn neighborhood and push the effects of gentrification further south. Expanding the residential system is just part of the University’s broader motivation of attracting applicants to a modern, affluent neighborhood while displacing low-income residents.

Regardless of the true intentions behind construction, the new residence halls have the potential to serve their purposes quite well. Woodlawn, North, and Renee Granville-Grossman are all top-of-the-line facilities, and I am confident that house culture is present in some of their houses. In fact, I was beyond satisfied this year with the community and culture I found at Halperin, my house in Renee Granville-Grossman. From many accounts, however, this is not guaranteed in the newer dorms. The fact remains that there are many areas where they fall short of UChicago’s picture-perfect presentation of residence life. These expensive, towering facilities hinder the formation of new house culture and instead create the veneer of a robust residential system. We can only hope that the many new additional houses added in the past decade will grow into deeply enriching environments that serve undergraduates well in the future.

Luke Contreras is a second-year in the College.