Fired-up community meeting explores University Heights crises

UB, City of Buffalo, students all opinionated on potential changes to neighborhood

By LISA KHOURY
On October 2, 2013

  • On Monday night, approximately 70 University Heights community members gathered to discuss prevalent neighborhood issues like student partying and its effect on safety. Many concerned residents said UB should take larger ownership of the area because of its large student population, and Assistant Vice President for Government and Community Relations Michael Pietkiewicz (standing, far right) presented UB’s side. Daniele Gershon, The Spectrum

Gloria J. Parks Community Center was packed with concerned University Heights citizens, Buffalo Police officers, students and a UB administrator on Monday night.

The area, which is home to thousands of students, is riddled with crime and unsafe housing conditions, but is also a go-to location for student nightlife.

Many of the 70-plus community members who attended the meeting were angry with the student-related problems that, they said, have been around for decades.

UB, the City of Buffalo and the University Heights Collaborative are coming together and attempting to find a solution.

Much of the room's tension lay between UB and the Buffalo Police.

Mickey Vertino, the University Heights Collaborative president who hosted Monday night's gathering, said the situation near South Campus is "getting out of control," but urged everyone to not turn the discussion into a "blame game."

There were three main points of contention throughout the meeting: Students shouldn't live in the Heights without UB guardianship; UB shouldn't drop its students off on South Campus late at night because many are drunk upon arrival and University Police should patrol the Heights; and Buffalo Police shouldn't be held responsible for disciplining UB students.

Shutting down the 24-hour bus system

The UB Stampede bus system has been running 24 hours a day since 2009. Some students call it the "drunk bus."

Many Heights residents said it is unacceptable that UB facilitates dropping off intoxicated students near bars or house parties. Assistant Vice President for Government and Community Relations Michael Pietkiewicz, the only UB representative present, said UB's bus service allows students to go to the library on South Campus that is open 24 hours a day.

"There's an 800-pound elephant in the room, and I will say it," said Buffalo Police E-district Chief Kimberly Beaty, whose officers patrol the Heights. "On Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday night, there are not 800 students going to the library. And it's creating a problem in this neighborhood."

"And the Buffalo Police shouldn't be responsible," a community member added. "Why can't the university police patrol the streets?"

Pietkiewicz argued that UPD has no jurisdiction in the district.

Should UB take a larger role in the Heights?

Rosline Righetti, who has lived on Merrimac Street for almost 60 years, said she is "ashamed that UB won't take more ownership in the Heights."

She said if UB won't find a way for its police to patrol the neighborhood, it needs to, at minimum, police the buses that drop students off at South Campus.

"Last week, when I came home on Friday night, I counted when I was driving [on Main Street] 23 miles per hour, there were over 499 kids at 11:30," Righetti said. "So when you say, 'Don't stop the buses,' maybe what we can do is, before [students] get on the bus, make sure there's no open containers."

Many suggested UB should either not allow students to live in the houses on their own or it should take responsibility for students' actions.

"This is not 'The Heights;' this is a family neighborhood," a community member shouted. "UB is creating a culture promoting it [as student housing]."

The woman, who is a permanent resident, said students are bringing down home values in the neighborhood. Fraternities and sororities, some legal, some illegal, rent houses in the Heights. Some Greek Life members host house parties and, recently, because two of three Main Street bars have shut down, more students are flocking to house parties than usual.

The concerned woman said she sees "hundreds" of young people partying in her neighborhood, and she suffers from sleep deprivation from their loud gatherings. She said if the students don't leave, she might have to.

"Trust me, you don't want to lose homeowners like me who have doubled our home properties," she said. "This should be stopped yesterday."

UB has five apartment complexes on North Campus, which is located in Amherst, but it has no apartment complexes on South Campus, which is located in the city.

Herman Huntley, a resident of 63 Englewood Ave. for 10 years, lives next to a "party house" of male students. He said, this semester, they've had parties with "close to 100 people in the backyard and basement" every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

"If you're building the apartments in Amherst, keep your kids in Amherst," Huntley said. "I want UB to have more accountability for its students."

Are students the problem?

Many of the concerned residents said students are corrupting the neighborhood.

Vertino, who used to be a landlord in the area, said his former student renters put a keg that was saturated with beer on the first floor, which caused the floor to sag. In the basement, he noticed the main beam on the ceiling was cracked. If people walked through the upstairs, the basement ceiling could have caved in, he said, adding that students were frequently in that basement.

"We're not focusing on holding the students accountable for their actions - it's a loving act," Vertino said. "We don't want them to go into dangerous situations."

Many students are unknowingly putting themselves in danger by holding parties in the century-old homes, many of which are not up to code. Also, they're getting drunk late at night, making it easier for criminals to take advantage of them.

One community member said criminals are prevalent in the Heights because they wait to prey on college students who are drunk.

"When students come in, crime goes up," she said. "Criminals are posting [up]."

One community member stood up and pointed out that not all of the young people "hosting ridiculously huge parties" are necessarily from UB.

"That's rare," Beaty responded.

Jacob Jordan, an urban and planning graduate student, has lived on Merrimac for four years - since he was an undergraduate at UB. He's the president of the Merrimac block club.

Jordan proposed a solution on Monday night: He said the University Heights Collaborative and Student Association should partner up and target "more academically minded students" who would take an active role in the Heights community instead of those who choose to live there for recreational purposes.

Aaron Krolikowski, a UB alum who also lives in and is active in the Heights, said UB students are adults and shouldn't be told where they can go or when they can take public transportation.

"I want to echo what Jake said: We have to do a better job as a community at identifying and creating opportunities for those good students and make it less desirable for those bad citizens to be here," Krolikowski said.

Exploring a solution

Vertino prefaced the meeting by saying it wasn't going to be about solving the problem just yet, but bringing awareness to the nature of the issues in the Heights.

In an interview after the meeting, Pietkiewicz said university officials are going to have a group meeting with "a smaller substance" of Monday night's group - including Vertino and block club members.

   

email: news@ubspectrum.com


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