Senators hear of more urban, more turbulent U community

We don't feel safe (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

A University of Minnesota official told state senators today that increased urbanization of the U has prompted officials to rethink security on and around campus.

Pam Wheelock, vice president of university services, says increased neighborhood density, fewer single-family households and more absentee landlords have made it tougher to keep students safe.

And she said campus officials and police are thinking about how to grapple with such changing demographics, as well as how how the opening of the light rail next year -- yet another sign of urbanization -- may affect campus safety.

"Some of the strategies that work to engage neighborhoods and to keep neighborhoods safe that work well in single-family homeownership areas aren't really the strategies you use for a more mobile, more densely developed neighborhood," she said.

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The Senate hearing on campus safety comes amid a rash of robberies and other violent crimes around the U that has students, U officials and legislators concerned. Many of those have involved armed criminals targeting students with smart phones and laptops.

Statistics presented at the hearing indicated that the number of robberies this fall is about 39 percent higher than normal. This autumn saw 25 robberies -- all but three off campus -- compared to a median of 18 over the past decade.

Law enforcement officials from the U and surrounding city and county forces told legislators they have worked closely together to carry out safety measures such as stepping up patrols and conducting safety-awareness campaigns.

They said they're also identifying problem areas such as dark walkways and those with foliage where criminals could lie in wait for victims.

Wheelock said U officials are considering beefing up police staffing, adding street lighting, and working more closely with students.

She said they're also discussing how to make the area around the light-rail stops safer.

Danita Brown Young, the U's vice provost for student affairs, says she has heard student concerns:

"They are uncomfortable living in the surrounding neighborhoods, and are considering moving from Minneapolis. We have heard from some students and families that are unwilling to patronize business owners in the surrounding community after certain hours. Some current students are considering transferring from the institution, and some potential students are rethinking their admission to the U. And some potential families are reconsidering whether to send their son or daughter to the university."

Among those students expressing concern were U premed majors Rachel Sadowsky, a sophomore from Minnetonka, and Sara Gottlieb, a senior from Golden Valley. This fall they drafted a petition calling for a stronger police presence on and around campus.

They told senators many students do everything they can to be safe -- such as walk with others and use pepper spray -- but it's not enough. And they don't feel safe.

After the hearing, Sadowski told me:

"We feel we can't walk a couple blocks to the library, still. We see the police, but we keep getting crime alerts, we keep hearing about all of these crimes from our friends, that these are happening to."

Sadowsky also told senators that a U of M safe-ride-home program she works at -- Gopher Chauffeur -- can't keep up with demand.

She said that this past weekend the reservation line continued to ring even as she was on the phone organizing rides for students. She said she was unable to answer about 80 calls to service that night. And some students had to wait two and a half for a ride.

"We could definitely use more resources there," she said.

One homeowner near the U she'd like to see more resources going toward reshaping the demographics of her neighborhood.

Cordelia Pierson, president of the neighborhood association of Marcy-Holmes, said the free market has produced a "monoculture" of student rental housing in her neighborhood.

"That wouldn't be a concern but for the public safety issues it raises," she said.

She said she'd like to see the university help turn the area into a more diverse neighborhood. She said it should develop a housing policy and offer, for example, incentives to faculty and staff to buy houses in the neighborhood and reside there.

Other universities have such housing programs, she said:

"That would affect the crime because ... there is a greater likelihood that there will be people walking the streets, people with their porch lights on, people engaged in creating quality of life and a sense of a cared-for community -- not a community where houses are allowed to deteriorate, and porch lights aren't turned on."