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Student conduct: Livability on the rise

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See a trend for a month and it’s too small a sample. Spot one for a year … and you may conclude it’s a statistical anomaly. Maybe it was the weather. Or cosmic ions. Three years in? Maybe it really IS a trend.

The Corvallis community started a conversation in 2012 about solving problems in the neighborhoods near the Oregon State University campus that were awash in “livability” issues such as parties, trash, binge drinking, infill development, parking, congestion and traffic.

OSU growth — Corvallis campus enrollment surged 20 percent from 19,900 in the 2009-10 school year to 24,383 last fall — and the attendant concerns led the city, university and community to embark on the Collaboration Corvallis project.

Actions resulting from the initiative included increases in OSU staffing to address student conduct, new city ordinances that stiffened the penalties for livability crimes, a cooperative effort on the part of property managers and landlords to hold tenants accountable for their actions and the addition of a livability patrol by the Corvallis Police Department.

The livability officers, paid for by a levy passed by the voters in 2013, are new — they debuted in August — but the other efforts have been hacking away at the problems since 2012.

And the results, in this fourth annual Gazette-Times special report on livability trends, are impressive:

• Police data (see chart above) show that “quality of life” crimes (disturbances, fights, alcohol violations, loud music and parties) have been on a downward trend the past three years.

• Police issuance of “special response notice” warnings also has declined. Most significantly, the second SRN for repeat offenders, which results in residents being charged for the police time, have dropped for 38 to 13 in the past three years (see chart at right).

• OSU, which began holding students accountable for off-campus conduct two years ago, saw its off-campus caseload drop 45 percent from 379 in 2013-14 to 234 in 2014-15.

• The property managers speak with pride at the fact that next-morning police notification of tenant citations and other police calls enables the landlords to tackle problems immediately.

No one is declaring victory, but there is a sense that things ARE getting better.

“The results are positive and substantial,” said Carl Yeh, director of OSU’s office of student conduct since the fall of 2013. “It’s a fact that livability crime continues to decline. These are all good signs. And it’s a testament to the work that OSU, the city and the CPD are doing to educate students on what is appropriate behavior off-campus.”

“The numbers certainly indicate a downward trend and we hope to maintain the experience,” said Corvallis Police Chief Jon Sassaman. “I’d characterize our current results as a good trend.”

“Behavior is much better in my neighborhood,” said Charlyn Ellis, president of the Chintimini Neighborhood Association.

Ellis, who lives near Chintimini Park, added that “we have not had to ‘do a lap’ and call in three or four parties at once all (school) year. I would say that all of the adults, working together, have made an improvement in the party culture of Corvallis. We need to continue the good work.”

Officials also note the importance of individuals receiving the same message from all sides. A student whose loud off-campus party is busted will find the police at the door with an SRN, a landlord visiting the following day, that Yeh’s office has started a student conduct investigation and that a letter will be mailed from the office of Jonathan Stoll, OSU’s community outreach coordinator.

“Community channels have been created,” said Stoll, who assumed his position in June of 2014. “It can be a challenge because students identify with being here temporarily. They can be apathetic and not engaged. It’s our responsibility to try to engage them. There is interest. It just has to be tapped."

Since his arrival Stoll has organized two good neighbor days in which students and other volunteers canvass neighborhoods with literature about neighbor relations. He has established a preferred renter program in cooperation with the property managers. Students get a deposit credit for attending workshops on off-campus living.

This year Stoll is starting a community ambassador program and hopes to hire five or six students to participate.

“It’s a way to expand our reach,” he said. “It changes a lot when a student is there. If there is no student at the table it changes the conversation.”

Stoll, Yeh, community conduct officer Raphelle Rhoads and other hires in Greek life and the student health service all represent significant new spending by the university in livability areas.

“Our students know that we are serious about such matters and that reports of violations will be fully investigated and addressed,” said OSU President Ed Ray. “I recognize that such attention can also encourage more reporting of such violations, which I think is a sign that OSU’s actions are being viewed as meaningful.”

Livability officers

The newest troops in the livability battle are the three voter-approved community livability officers hired by the Corvallis Police Department. Officers James Dodge, Trevor Anderson and Luke Thomas took to the streets in August. Literally.

“We want to be like the cops in Mayberry,” Dodge told an Oct. 13 meeting of the Garfield Park Neighborhood Association meeting in a reference to the fictional locale of the folksy late 1960s television show “Mayberry RFD.”

“Cops walking the beat. We’re going to be working a lot on foot and on bicycle. We’re trying to tackle criminal behavior in a new way. More of a humanizing approach. It’s different when you are in a car, and we’re trying to break down that barrier. If you know my name and have talked to me before it makes it so much easier.”

What’s not easy is finding enough hours in the day — or the right hours — for the livability officers to serve the community. Some neighborhood leaders expressed concerns that the officers debuted with a 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. work day that mainly consisted of educational outreach.

Some thought an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. “busting parties” shift would have been more appropriate.

In addition, the officers got pulled away to play a leading role in a tactical action plan that targeted criminal behavior in the downtown core and the riverfront from Aug. 1 to Oct. 1.

“They were presented to the voters as help for the neighborhoods around campus,” one community leader said. “I know that the homeless issue has escalated since then and I understand the need for help there, but if that is all they are doing, I am concerned about false advertising.”

Chief Sassaman recognizes that the livability patrol constitutes a valuable resource for which there will be competing demands.

“Since this is a new effort and making contacts is critical to the team’s overall success, it reasoned during the summer months they would work during the day,” Sassaman said. “As the academic year begins, the schedule will adjust to those days and times where peak activity is expected.

“It’s also important to note that the CLO team cannot be everywhere at the same time all days of the week. This is a new endeavor and we recognize expectations are high. The team is working diligently and we hope to capitalize on existing success already achieved since 2012.”

The Retreat

One challenge the livability officers already are working on is the influence of The Retreat, a massive 330-unit student housing complex that opened Sept. 19. Located just west of the campus near the corner of Southwest 35th Street and Western Boulevard, the complex has room for 1,016 tenants.

The complex, owned and managed by Landmark Properties, an Athens, Georgia, company that specializes in student housing, was built after the 33-acre Sather property was added to the city’s stock of land in a November 2012 annexation vote.

The first couple of weeks were rocky. Police data analyzed by the Gazette-Times show that in its first seven days the Retreat was visited seven times on livability calls by the CPD, including five SRNs in a 48-hour period (see chart below).

“It’s been an interesting start,” Dodge said. “When they all started moving in they thought it was a law-enforcement free zone. And it not only was that we had quite a few calls, but the behaviors I have seen … people not acting right. You ask them to shut (the music) off and they turn it up.”

The Retreat is so large that it required the construction of five new streets. Dodge said residents were under the mistaken impression that they were on private property and could walk across the street carrying a beer.

“It was just a matter of then knowing the law applies here as well as elsewhere in the city,” Dodge said.

And in an example of how the livability patrol team expects to work a “town hall” was held Oct. 17 at the Retreat’s clubhouse. On hand were Dodge, Anderson, Stoll and Travis Jamison, the Retreat’s community manager. Pizza was served and Dodge, Anderson and Stoll mingled with about 25 Retreat residents.

“We’ve got a lot of people in a small space,” Jamison told the residents. “We need you to learn how to be good neighbors. It’s important to know what the rules are. Ask your questions now. It’s all meaningless if you don’t.”

“Cooperation really goes a long way with us,” Dodge told the residents. “If we knock on the door, answer it. Don’t pull the shades or turn the lights off. And if you are having a party we want you to do it smart. We’re not here to hammer you.”

“If you give us respect we’ll give it in return,” Anderson said.

“We’ve already learned a lot,” Jamison told the Gazette-Times. “All of this stuff is new to us, too. We’re still trying to understand your rules. But it’s really fun and challenging … teaching students how to be a good neighbor. If we can teach them now we are not only changing our community but where they go from here, whether it’s New York or Los Angeles or wherever.”

Jamison said the Retreat is considering hiring a security force but "doesn't want to step on the CPD's toes."

Late-night stroll

A Gazette-Times reporter and a community member visited the Retreat on Oct. 18, the day after the town hall. The OSU football team had played earlier in the day, losing 52-31 at Washington State. In general football game days (whether the game is at home or away) and Halloween tend to be the times in which there are the most interactions between the police and students.

This night was fairly quiet, although some mitigating circumstances might have been in play. First, the rash of SRNs might have already had an impact on resident behavior. Ditto for the town hall. The other thing that is notable about the Retreat is that is geographically isolated from areas of town where students tend to congregate — and move about from party to party.

We heard a couple of moderately loud parties but there was no police presence during the 11:15 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. interval we were on the site. Littering was the biggest problem we saw. We counted 23 beer containers, with Coors Light (eight) and Rolling Rock (five) dominating.

One young man, walking unsteadily, introduced himself to us and said he was visiting a friend. There was light pedestrian traffic, with many of the residents carrying towels to use after dipping in the sauna. A couple of enterprising fellows scooted around on the foot-activated Segway boards, which seemed a smart idea given the size of the complex.

Everything was new: shrubs, grass, fitness center, sidewalks and parking lots. The lots themselves were less than half full, which jibes with reports from the Retreat that less than half of the tenants bought the $20 parking permits, partly because the complex is easily walkable and bikeable to campus.

We saw the Retreat’s shuttle bus, which picks up residents in the downtown area and on Monroe Avenue, come and go and come back again.

Previous Gazette-Times walkabouts north of campus have been much more alarming, with fights, profanity that travels for blocks, public urination and pervasive sirens. The community member on the walkabout noted that he still hears “mortar-size fireworks going off weekly” in his neighborhood. And he noted that parking remains an issue that has not been resolved.

The future

Will the OSU caseload and police calls continue to go down?

“It’s important to give these things a chance to work,” Yeh said. “When we first started (holding students accountable for off-campus behavior) we had students ask us how we found out about it. We don’t get these questions anymore. It’s become part of the norm.”

“With some of them the light bulb is going off,” said Rhoads, Yeh’s partner in tackling student conduct. “They say they hadn’t thought about how their party affected someone down the street. There is a ripple effect.”

Yeh and Rhoads noted that the presence of the livability officers will inevitably produce a different dynamic.

“We might have an uptick (in cases),” Rhoads said. “We don’t know. If this  leads to more interactions and incidents we are ready to respond.”

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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