The Columbia River flowing alongside Washington State University Tri-Cities’ Richland campus already provides a backdrop for students studying or eating lunch outside, playing sports on the campus green or biking along the shore.
Now it may be the first thing future students see when they wake and one of the last things they see before they go to sleep.
A developer reportedly is interested in Port of Benton land for a housing project that could ultimately include 1,000 units for university students. Port commissioners recently designated about 40 acres of port property — the last the port has along the river — as surplus, so port officials can begin discussions with the developer on a purchase price.
“It’s huge for WSU (Tri-Cities) because they’re going to do nothing but grow,” said port Executive Director Scott Keller during the recent meeting.
Specifics on the proposal aren’t available, and port and university officials have declined to identify the developer, though port Executive Director Scott Keller said they are based in the Mid-Columbia. Officials from the Richland campus recently met with WSU administrators in Pullman about the proposal, but they declined further comment.
“As with all potential proposals, WSU Tri-Cities will carefully consider this proposal and report the results, when appropriate,” said university spokesman Jeffrey Dennison in a statement.
Word of the partnership between the port and university on a student housing project surfaced at the end of 2014. University officials want a student housing option close to campus to enhance student life, particularly as they seek to retain its ever-growing freshman classes. There were 187 freshman at the university this year, the most in school history.
“In general we are very excited about the possibility of student housing and believe it would have an immediate impact on the growth of the campus and the Tri-Cities community,” Dennison said.
The land potentially being pursued by the developer sits along the river bordered by University Drive to the south and Battelle Boulevard to the north. A facility leased by Penford Food Ingredients Co. on University Drive sits in the southeastern corner.
The developer would need about 28 acres of the property moved to surplus, Keller told commissioners, primarily that between the Penford facility and Battelle Boulevard. The project would start with a 150-unit dorm facility and would then be built out over 10 years to reach 1,000 units, some of which could be part of a “village” layout within the development.
The port would still retain control of the actual shoreline as it has to maintain the shore as part of its responsibilities for receiving the land from federal agencies decades ago. That led commissioners to raise questions about what that responsibility would look like when hundreds of young adults are living next door with easy access to a river to relax and play in.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in college, but I have grandchildren in college. I know what goes on,” Commission President Jane Hagarty said. “We are going to be having more of a liability with that exposure.”
Port officials noted that it could be possible for the port to also surplus the physical shoreline, though it would be a more drawn out process. But overall they were supportive of the project.
“That’s government property we were never able to sell before,” Commission Vice President Robert Larson said.
It’s unclear how long it might take for the port and the developer to reach a sale price for the property, or even how much it could go for. Keller said the developer is “champing at the bit” to move the project forward and that it should be a win-win for everyone involved.
“In order to make this a real campus, they have to provide housing,” Keller said.