How to use a closed college campus? Marylhurst’s answer: Affordable, efficient housing.

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Dive Brief:

  • The former Marylhurst University campus, to the south of Portland, Oregon, is on its way to becoming 100 affordable apartments as part of a redevelopment plan moving ahead four years after the institution closed.
  • Groups involved in the redevelopment, affordable housing developer Mercy Housing Northwest and the property’s owner, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, held a groundbreaking ceremony for the project last week. Also involved in the project are several public funders and private financing partners.
  • Called Marylhurst Commons Affordable Housing, the project is intended to be among the most energy-efficient affordable housing facilities in the country.

Dive Insight:

As colleges shut down and close branch campuses across the country in the face of demographic headwinds and shifting population patterns, questions often loom about what to do with the real estate they leave behind.

In some cases, struggling colleges have been located on in-demand land, helping them find merger partners. In others, local leaders have tried to reenvision college campuses as sites for workforce development programs or other types of education, from early childhood centers to high schools.

Marylhurst is an example of another option: housing. The redevelopment project comes as the campus’s home county, Clackamas County, seeks to build at least 1,500 new affordable homes.

Until it closed, Marylhurst was Oregon’s oldest Catholic university. Established in 1893, it also counted itself as the first liberal arts college for women to be established in the Pacific Northwest region. It became a coeducational institution in 1974. That same year, it was designated a college for lifelong learning.

The college counted 743 students when it closed, roughly split between undergraduate and graduate levels. Most students, 80%, came from within Oregon. Many were adults — the median age for undergraduates was 34, and the median age for graduate students was 38.

The institution took steps to try to adapt to a changing marketplace. It was an early adopter of online education, starting courses in 1996. When it closed, many of its students were online. About a fifth were entirely online, and some 58% took a mix of hybrid and online courses.

Nonetheless, leaders pointed to declining enrollment and an increasingly challenging fiscal picture as prompting the decision to shut down — saying they wanted to do so while they still had a financial runway for closing in an orderly fashion. After the institution held its last classes in the summer of 2018, its campus was returned to the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, who started the institution over a century prior.

Then the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary had to decide what to do with it.

“People said housing, we need housing,” Sister Linda Patrick told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “We need housing for people with fewer financial resources.”

Plans call for the building to have highly efficient mechanical systems and windows. It’s expected to use 40% less electricity than a corresponding conventional design. The structure will be U-shaped, standing three stories and four stories. Most of its units will have two or three bedrooms.

“We value everyone in our communities and are using our resources in innovative ways to have a bit more impact as we pursue real solutions to the affordable housing shortage in our state,” said Andrea Bell, executive director of the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, in a statement. The department is among several public funders that also include the county housing authority.

The facility is expected to open in 2024.

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