A party on Windfall Hill

It's 9 p.m. on a Monday night. About a dozen Washington and Lee University women are getting ready at their house on Sandbridge Lane to go to a party across the small Virginia town of Lexington.

A junior sips a Bud Light and complains to her girlfriends that her hair doesn't look straight enough.

The students lounge on the sofa and chat about the night's plans while Keeping Up With the Kardashians plays on a 42-inch flatscreen TV in the living room.

Typically, Traveller, the school's nighttime bus system named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee's horse during the Civil War, picks students up at off-campus houses throughout Rockbridge County to shuttle them to and from parties on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. But during the fall term, some parties and rush events are held on weekdays when the buses don't run.

After about an hour of hanging out at the house on Kappa Hill, the women cram into a blue Toyota Highlander driven by a sober friend and head to a cabin where the Phi Delta Theta fraternity is hosting that night's party—this time an annual rush event.

It's a 10-minute trip on two winding country roads, two four-lane highways and the narrow streets of historic downtown Lexington. The ride ends at a wooden cabin packed with college students dancing to blaring music.

It's part of the Washington and Lee ritual of going out—but it's about to change.

The 266-year-old private liberal arts university known for its student-run Honor System is bringing third-year students back to live on campus. A new $41 million housing complex is changing a tradition of juniors living in off-campus houses in the countryside of rural Rockbridge County.

It's a move that will not only change the social scene for students, but will shake a local housing market that reaps $3.2 million a year in student rent from 112 houses.

 

On-campus housing for juniors had been discussed for years, but the project gained momentum after the University's Board of Trustees approved the policy in February 2014. Traditionally, students have lived in houses with names like County Seat, Pumptown and Doublewide that created unique neighborhoods made up almost entirely of students.

 

Dean of Students Sidney Evans said one of the reasons for bringing students back to campus was to improve safety, particularly when students go to parties.

In December 2013, a drunk driving accident killed then-senior Kelsey Durkin, a 21-year-old from New Canaan, Conn., and seriously injured three others, including Ellen Gleason, then a junior politics major from Santa Barbara, Calif.

At approximately 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2013, a Chevy Tahoe SUV carrying 11 students skidded off Turkey Hill Road and hit a tree stump. The driver, former Washington and Lee student Nicholas Hansel, had been driving under the influence and was taking the students home from a party at an off-campus house known as Hooterville.

Police said Durkin was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the vehicle. She was taken to Stonewall Jackson Hospital and pronounced dead on arrival.

Durkin's family donated a kinetic sculpture, which was dedicated to her memory in a ceremony in the fall after it was installed near the first-year dorms.

The Turkey Hill Road crash was one of several drunk driving accidents that have rattled the Washington and Lee community over the years.

Although the incident last year ended tragically, it unfortunately wasn't uncommon, said Laura Lindsay Tatum, a 2014 graduate. Those circumstances happen all the time. And when there's a situation where you can look at that incident and say, 'That could have been me, that could have been my friends,' that's when the institution needs to step in.

The Promise Committee, a student-run organization that works with the University's administration, student body and the city of Lexington, was created shortly after the 2013 accident to promote safe driving.

The whole goal of the Promise Committee is to decrease and cut down on drinking and driving within Lexington for Washington and Lee students, said senior Jack Thomson, co-leader of the organization.

One of the recent changes the group has worked to implement is a system in which sober drivers place yellow flags on their cars for students to recognize when trying to get to and from parties. Thomson said this is a way to give students peace of mind that they're riding with someone who has not been drinking.

The Promise Committee has also created a video to educate freshmen about past accidents, and it's shown to first-year students during orientation week. Seeing that video and seeing how it impacted the upperclassmen really made it hit home, said first-year student Julian Hennig. This is so important. We can't let it happen again.

I always think it's interesting retrospectively thinking about how W&L is a place where stealing a pen from Co-op will get you kicked out of school, but drinking and driving doesn't have that kind of same effect. —Catherine Salm '15

Don Childress, rector of the Board of Trustees, said third-year housing could curb future drinking-and-driving accidents. He said if there were fewer parties in the country, students might be less likely to drive in private vehicles after drinking.

The Board also wanted to preserve the bonds students formed while living in the dorms as freshmen, he said.

We want a stronger sense of community, Childress said. If you live on campus, then you're going to be on campus more. We think that's the heartbeat of what a great college looks like.

But some students say changing the school's culture will alter tradition.

Talking to kids in our class, they feel like it's somewhat going away from the tradition of Washington and Lee, said Chris Flight, a senior who lives at one of the Pole Houses on Furrs Mill Road. I feel like now we're kind of conforming to what every other school does.

 

The school broke ground on the new complex in spring 2015 and expects to open seven apartment buildings and eight townhouses to students in fall term 2016.

The speedy construction is a result of a modular building technique, in which Kjellstom+Lee Construction ships in pre-fabricated modules from Rocky Mount, Va.

You'd never be able to tell from the street whether or not the building was built conventionally, what they call stick-built—one two-by-four at a time—or this way, where they're built in a factory, said Brian Connolly, Washington and Lee's project manager.

Two groups of buildings will be connected by a courtyard directly overlooking Wilson Field, the school's main outdoor athletic venue. One of the buildings will have a restaurant on the first floor, which will serve grab-and-go breakfast in the morning and sandwiches at lunch. At night, Evans said, it will serve pub food, along with beer, wine and local ciders.

In the other building, common spaces and a cardio-only fitness center will occupy the first floor. The second floor will house office space and a dance studio. In both buildings, apartments will be located on the upper floors.

Each unit will have a porch—a design choice that reflects the school's goal of creating a close-knit community, Evans said.

You might look out and see friends hanging around the fire pit or throwing a Frisbee or whatever, and you can go out and hang with them. And you don't necessarily have to plan every single thing, she said.

A nearby pavilion will host band parties and other student gatherings. Evans said she hopes this common area, modeled after the pavilion at House Mountain Inn in Rockbridge County, will lure students away from off-campus parties.

It makes me nervous when [students] are out there, and I'm always worried that somebody is going to get hurt, she said.

The plans include a large fire pit, a recreational playing field and multiple portable grills for students to use.

Rumors of a pedestrian bridge connecting the new housing to the front part of campus are more of a stretch, Evans said.

We want to do a bridge eventually, she said. We'll have to see what the Board says.

 

Local businesses, landlords and political leaders have closely monitored the university's decision-making process. Because many students sign two-year leases, it is expected that some off-campus student houses will be vacant during the first year juniors are required to live on campus.

Instead of the market dropping 50 percent for one year, it [will drop] 100 percent, said Paul Wilson, a landlord who has owned several houses in Lexington and Rockbridge County that he has rented to students.

Lexington Mayor Mimi Elrod said some landlords have enjoyed a cash cow from Washington and Lee students over the years, charging thousands of dollars a month to rent houses that are worth much less.

People who are renting their houses, they're going to have to do a bit better, she said.

Landlords Mitchell and Laura Shaner, who own houses on Windfall Hill, declined to be interviewed. J.W. Entsminger, who owns several houses on Kappa Hill, declined a request for an interview.

Low population growth could amplify the economic impact of third-year housing, said Scott Hoover, a Washington and Lee professor who teaches real estate finance.

There are 7,170 beds in Lexington, and we're going to add [338] to that with the third-year housing, he said. Somewhere there are going to be [338] beds that are empty as a result of that.

Hoover said the best way to look at the impact is with a simple supply-and-demand model. Because there aren't a lot of people moving in and out of the area, both supply and demand tend to stay pretty fixed, he said.

W&L isn't really hiring, and [the Virginia Military Institute] is not really hiring, Hoover said. Those are the two big drivers in the economy, and so if they are not hiring and we don't have a big industry here to draw people in, the question is, who would buy?

Downtown Lexington business owners disagree about the potential impact of the junior housing project.

Miles Millon, manager of The Southern Inn, a restaurant popular with tourists, residents and students, said he thinks business might increase when juniors move back to campus.

I think having them closer to downtown will bring us a lot more business on every front, whether it be lunch, dinner or late-evening bar business, he said.

 

Many students seem to have accepted the school's decision to move juniors back to campus. But many say they will miss the quirky culture of Washington and Lee's off-campus housing.

Historically, Washington and Lee men and women signed leases that were passed from older to younger members of the same fraternity or sorority, and they would live in the houses their junior and senior years.

We were all thinking about which houses we wanted, and then we immediately started thinking about which houses we're going to lose because we can't fill them, said Liz French, a sophomore from New Orleans, La., and a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma.

French said she's excited about third-year housing because it will allow students more opportunities to interact with the opposite gender.

While female and male students live together in dorms their freshman years, the two groups are separated sophomore year, when many students opt to live in sorority or fraternity houses.

Alumnus Catherine Salm, who was also injured in the December 2013 accident, said it might be a few years before changes to the social scene are fully felt, particularly regarding safety.

I think like with anything with W&L, you kind of need to have a four-year cycle to transition out the old and in with the new, she said. And like a lot of things on this campus, people don't like giving up traditions and people don't like starting something new. I think once it's had that one cycle of people kind of moving in and out and getting used to it, it'll be an overall positive experience.

Published December 17, 2015