Morgantown and WV University Neighborhood Collaboration

April 11, 2011

by James Brooks

In a remarkable partnership, the City of Morgantown, W.Va., and West Virginia University (WVU) have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2004 to stabilize and rejuvenate the Sunnyside neighborhood adjacent to the school's downtown campus. The Sunnyside Up Campus Neighborhoods Revitalization Corporation is the vehicle providing the residents of Sunnyside with a voice in decisions affecting their neighborhood.

Morgantown is a city nestled in the Appalachian foothills and rising up from the Monongahela River. The student population is 28,000, only about 10 percent of whom are able to live in on-campus housing. The resulting demand for rental housing in the city and the county represents an ongoing challenge for the local leaders.

The creation of Sunnyside Up was an acknowledgement that available student housing was woefully inadequate and in many cases substandard and unsafe. Through annual grants of $100,000 each from the city and the university, the nonprofit has brought together the various local stakeholders - students, property owners, merchants, university representatives and local elected officials - to set a vision and implement a strategy to create a more vital community.

"Sunnyside Up works because we have a great partnership," says Executive Director Jim Hunt, who also is a councilmember in Clarksburg, W.Va., and a past president of NLC. "The City of Morgantown, West Virginia University, property owners, landlords and students, all are working for a better neighborhood."

Cleaner, Safer and More Walkable

The Sunnyside neighborhood covers about 135 acres and is densely packed with retail business and a mix of old and new duplex, fourplex, multi-story apartments and converted single-family homes now holding a family of students. 

Before the neighborhood partnership, parking was often impossible and a  lack of street lighting and its associated concern for personal safety demanded attention. Many buildings are not code-compliant. Litter, including appliances, tires and household trash, clogged public rights of way and trash dumpsters were often set alight. A neighborhood that could be and should be a showplace for students, it has traditionally been viewed as an eyesore among the city's permanent residents.

Sunnyside Up stepped in to serve as convening neighborhood actor. Implementing the mandate from the city and university, the full-time executive director and an ever-growing pool of talented and resourceful student volunteers started small and delivered on every project they undertook.

Clean-up efforts that cut away weeds, overgrown grass, trash and other debris were early tasks. Volunteers painted more than 100 trash dumpsters in university blue with the signature Sunnyside logo. A façade grant program offers property owners assistance to complete needed exterior improvements to their properties. Owners can even receive architectural design assistance to ensure that proposed upgrades meet the requirements of the Morgantown Planning Department.

With the creation of a tax increment financing district for Sunnyside, more sophisticated projects were undertaken. Sidewalks, streetscapes and new street lights have been installed along nearly the entire length of Grant Avenue, which bisects the neighborhood. 

A new and enlarged bus stop with attractive landscaping and the plaza adjacent to the university's Summit Hall are an outgrowth of this new effort. Large solar powered trash compactors also have been installed at strategic locations in the neighborhood. The university and Sunnyside Up itself both have been purchasing distressed housing property either for demolition or for rehabilitation and reuse.

In the most monumental development thus far, Beech View Place, a $30 million apartment complex, is in the early stages of construction. When completed in the fall of 2011, this complex will house up to 420 students in one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and offer ground floor retail along with a parking garage.

Future Programs

Nuts and bolts community development remains at the heart of Sunnyside Up. With the warmer weather of spring, a neighborhood Jazz Fest will celebrate the accomplishments to date.

City professional staff, including a new city manager, are becoming fully integrated into the framework that Sunnyside Up has developed. A greater emphasis on "green" amenities and open space is on the drawing board for the next two years as is the possibility for a new tax increment financing proposal.