MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The neighborhood that West Virginia University junior Ben Cross calls home is anything but tony, with beer bottles on lawns, windows boarded up and the occasional sofa left burning in the street after some Mountaineers football games.
But while many view the Sunnyside district as a student slum, Mr. Cross and other undergraduates who rent apartments there see it as a cheap and friendly place to live, a neighborhood footsteps from the heart of campus that generations of WVU students have flocked to in their quest to find a party.
"We know each other. We all hang out together. We just walk in and out of each other's houses," said Mr. Cross, 22, a biology major from North Attleboro, Mass. "I can't imagine living anywhere else."
That's why, with demolition due to start in weeks, there are sharply different opinions about a $70 million plan by WVU and a private developer to build upscale student housing and retail in the heart of a neighborhood adjacent to the downtown campus.
To WVU and city leaders, the complex known as University Place is an opportunity to remake a blighted section of the city while helping WVU ease a housing shortage by adding 980 student beds. It might even do what police and campus discipline for years could not: End postgame disturbances there that tax city emergency services and embarrass the university with televised images of mayhem and police in riot gear.
But students in the neighborhood, and even some alumni, fear the changes may leave unrecognizable a place filled with some of their most vivid college memories.
Some of the 120 students living in apartments due to be razed starting in January said they had no idea WVU had purchased their buildings and planned to nudge them out until they read it last month in the newspaper. One man showed his frustration by scrawling "homeless" on his shirt.
Some students like Mr. Cross, whose Grant Avenue home is just outside the demolition zone, is deciding whether to stay but is unsure what life will be like living across the street from a construction site.
"If it were me, I probably would not be coming back to this school if the university took my house," said Kasha Vater, 19, a WVU sophomore from Pittsburgh's Westwood neighborhood who knows several friends suddenly facing a move mid-academic year.
WVU officials said they are not evicting students but rather are offering enticements for them to leave. Along with move-related expenses, WVU is making up the difference if a student's new apartment costs more.
"We know it wasn't their plan to move in the middle of the year, so we're doing what we can to minimize the hassle," said Corey Farris, interim dean of students at WVU and director of housing.
He said winter demolition means that by the fall 2014, WVU can offer more of the sort of modern housing and amenities that students and their parents demand. And having private enterprise involved means more tax revenue for the city than if WVU, a non-profit institution, built the complex on its own.
"There's a bit of short-term disruption, but the bigger picture is that it will be exciting," Mr. Farris said. "New apartments. Sweeping views of the city. Long term, this is a win-win situation all the way around -- for the students, the university and the city."
Project renderings suggest that, aesthetically at least, University Place will be a major step up from the dilapidated brick and frame houses in the neighborhood, whose steep slopes overlook the Monongahela River.
The complex will be built within the boundaries of University Avenue, Grant Avenue, Third Street and Houston Drive. The centerpiece is a pair of six- and seven-story buildings that will rise two blocks from campus.
The apartments will have private bathrooms and bedrooms, air conditioning, kitchens, Wi-Fi access and laundry facilities. Plans also include a grocery store, restaurant, fitness center, outdoor landscaped space and a WVU police substation.
Townhomes and parking are planned, too.
The deal between WVU and Paradigm Development Group LLC was announced Oct. 26, days after the school's board of governors voted to spend $14.6 million on roughly five acres for the project.
Like other universities, WVU has struggled to keep pace with rising demand in recent years for school-owned housing either on or immediately near campus.
Even with its existing 6,062 beds, WVU said it cannot adequately accommodate international, professional and veteran students, or growth in the number of freshmen and sophomores. The university said it hopes the project also will better enable WVU to honor faculty and staff requests for transitional family housing.
The development comes amid an ongoing push by the school, the city and other groups to revitalize commercial and residential areas of Morgantown, a city of 30,000 that officials say swells to roughly 75,000 during the day, largely because of WVU. Various efforts have been waged to curb rowdy student gatherings, including the Sunnyside "Learn Not to Burn" campaign, aimed at discouraging street and Dumpster fires that follow major events.
One humorous video posted on the WVU student government association website even shows fans carrying a couch onto Mountaineer Field to the words: "This is a couch. It's for sitting. And sleeping. And losing your remote ... burning a couch isn't cool."
It's not as if the flaming sofa was invented on the streets of Morgantown.
Many large universities sit near rundown neighborhoods that become alcohol-fueled flashpoints when large groups of students congregate. The drunken damage can be measured not just in injuries, arrests and dollars but in tarnished image, too.
At WVU, the latest black eye came Oct. 6 after the Mountaineers defeated the University of Texas 48-45 and a crowd in Sunnyside set fires, attempted to overturn cars and pelted police in riot-gear with bottles and rocks, leading to minor injuries and arrests.
Morgantown City Manager Terrence Moore is among those encouraged by the University Place project and similar efforts. But he said officials also know a cultural change is needed so problems in Sunnyside do not simply relocate to other parts of the city.
Bill Byrne, city councilman and former mayor, has tried in recent months to spur discussion of possible strategies to curb alcohol-related problems, from earlier bar closing times and stepped up enforcement against underage drinking in those establishments to taming house parties where students "pre-game" by getting drunk before heading out to the city's bars.
He said University Place, like hundreds of millions of dollars already invested in Sunnyside redevelopment projects, is beginning to improve the neighborhood.
"The area today looks better than it did 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "Obviously, we still have a long way to go."
His latter point seemed borne out on Grant Avenue recently as students talked about a light post toppled during the post-Texas-win disturbance and a renter boasted of living in "the No. 1 party house in the No. 1 party neighborhood."
Hoppy Kercheval, a prominent West Virginia broadcaster and Sunnyside resident while attending WVU in the 1970s, recently wrote that although he believes the neighborhood must be razed, he nonetheless is wistful.
His Oct. 28 online column for MetroNews drew a flurry of reader remembrances about coming of age in a neighborhood of unvented gas heaters, cockroaches and "wretched debauchery of the highest order."
One man said the cheap rents helped him avoid crushing college debt, while another said he met his future wife and learned he had been accepted to law school while living in the neighborhood. One reader, though, was not prepared to celebrate a place that brings out the worst in people.
"Some of the finest people I knew made a lot of bad decisions there."
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977.