Hillside demolition brings changes


Students may have noticed some changes in the landscape of Jennings Drive, but DOR executives say the changes are all part of a balancing act to provide the best possible facilities for UNI students.

Hillside Courts Apartments, a student housing complex of 278 units which had been in use since the 1972-1973 academic year, is in the final stages of demolition.

Glenn Gray, Executive Director of Residence, said that Hillside Courts, as well as Jennings Courts Apartments added in 1977, were constructed primarily in response to the “influx” of non-traditional students.

“We were seeing an increased need for married student housing,” said Gray, “in part due to the number of veterans that were coming home at the time. The GI bill afforded them the opportunity to pursue higher education.”

Gray explained that while traditional students enjoy living in the center of campus, many non-traditional students prefer to be farther away, and Hillside and Jennings filled that need. For nearly a half-century, the apartments housed married, international, graduate and other non-traditional students.

Jessica Love was one of those students. She lived in Hillside Courts from 2007-2009 while completing her M.A. in English. She said she has “fond memories” of her time there.

“The building was old, and the insulation wasn’t great,” said Love, “but overall, it was one of the better apartments I lived in. It met all my needs. My success in school would have been severely affected if I had not had the opportunity to live in an affordable housing situation.”

By 2018, however, the environment had taken its toll on these buildings.

“The hill was shifting,” said Gray. “The foundations [of the complex] were shifting, and that led to doorways and windows shifting, water mains breaking and many other issues.”

Without significant renovation, the apartments were no longer safe and viable for student housing. Gray and other DOR executives decided that although the Jennings apartments could be renovated, it would have been “financially irresponsible” to sink more money into Hillside. Demolition was deemed the most fiscally sound option, and the complex was fenced off to begin the process in June 2018.

Love was initially surprised when she learned of the demolition.

“I was kind of surprised because during the time I lived there, those apartments were packed,” she said. “There were veterans, families, non-traditional students… it was a community within a community. However, I recognize that the needs of that student population may have changed, and I want to assume the best that the university is still adequately providing for the needs of non-traditional students.”

According to Gray, the demolition actually allows the university to meet those needs more effectively, as a part of a larger shift in student housing demographics.

Many of the 243 students who lived in Hillside in the 2017-2018 academic year are now being housed in the newly renovated Jennings or in Roth Apartments.

Until recently, Roth housed a large number of second-year students, who want the space and privacy of apartment or suite-style living.

Before the renovation of Lawther Hall, Roth was the only campus housing option to fill that need, since Panther Village was open only to third-year students and above. However, second-year students also like to live in the center of campus, said Gray, and were dissatisfied with Roth’s distance from the campus core.

The 2017 re-opening of Lawther, as well as the opening of Panther Village, offered suite-style options in the campus core for second-year students and above. This freed up space in Roth to house the non-traditional students previously living in Hillside— who prefer to be farther away from campus anyway.

“It’s really a win-win-win situation from my perspective,” said Gray.

The demolition has caused past Hillside residents to reminisce about their time there.

Vince Gotera, an English professor in the Languages and Literatures department at UNI, was one of Hillside’s final residents, living there from July 2013 until June 2018. He said he finds the demolition “both interesting and sad” and has posted pictures of the process on his Facebook page, including a photo of a stairway left standing after its building had been demolished.

“I thought it looked cool and weird, like a stairway to heaven,” he said.

Those pictures caught the attention of Danelle Frisbie, another former resident, who lived at Hillside for about 5 years in the early 2000s. Frisbie, who now resides in Virginia Beach, didn’t personally know Dr. Gotera when she saw his photos on Facebook, but she reached out to thank him for posting them, and the two realized that they had actually lived in the same Hillside unit for several years. They began talking and sharing memories.

“At Hillside, I became dear friends with neighbors from all different nations,” said Frisbie. “Everyone was always welcome, and we’d pack our E street building with storytelling that spanned so many cultures, scholarly debate, and lots of laughter.”  

The majority of demolition at Hillside occurred over winter break, with final demolition expected to conclude this past weekend. Now that external structures have been razed, work will pause until the ground thaws in spring, when the lot will be converted to green space for the foreseeable future. Gray said future development on the site is certainly possible, although site restorations would be required before any construction could begin. However, he doesn’t foresee the space being used for more housing facilities.

“We are not currently seeing an increased demand [for housing], but if enrollment grows and there is a demand, we would most likely build inward from the north end of campus, to bring Bender and Dancer closer to the campus core,” he said.

The demolition of Hillside is just one part of a larger process, said Gray, as the DOR works to give students what they want and, hopefully, keep them living on campus.

.“Students who live on campus succeed at much greater rates than those who don’t,” he said, “and student success is always our goal.”