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Has College-Age Drinking on the Main Line Gotten Out of Hand?

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Fed up. That’s the sentiment expressed by residents, business owners and township officials as they continue to grapple with noise, public urination, vandalism and more—much of it coming from Villanova University students leaving the bars along Lancaster Avenue. And as off-campus housing has infiltrated surrounding neighborhoods, it’s gotten worse. 

Outsiders may pooh-pooh the problem as a “kids will be kids” inevitability.  But for those with firsthand knowledge of the situation, it’s a serious quality-of-life and safety concern. Lower Merion Township Commissioner V. Scott Zelov has taken a vocal stance on the issue. “No one is expecting students to stop drinking altogether—that’s simply not realistic,” says Zelov, whose district includes Bryn Mawr and Haverford. “But we should impose sensible restrictions on their conduct.”

Such restrictions are in place, confirms Villanova media relations director Jonathan Gust. But when pressed for specifics, he says that the university’s disciplinary code—and the judicial procedure for enforcing it—is an internal matter. He did note that punishments ranging from a $150 fine to expulsion have been handed down. 

Though he wouldn’t offer any hard numbers, Gust explained that an online alcohol-education program is mandatory for all new students and their parents, and peer guidance continues on campus. He provided a student manual describing Villanova’s code of conduct, which makes it clear that alcohol is prohibited on campus.

As for off-campus drinking, Gust says, “We’re disappointed when students misbehave, and there are consequences when they do. We also know that they are 18- to 21-year-olds, and they make mistakes. We help them learn from those mistakes and their repercussions. Our role, as we see it, is to educate them to avoid those mistakes, and learn to become responsible citizens and good neighbors.”

If Villanova appears to be down-playing the issue, Zelov is inspiring others to take action. One of them is Ari Raptis, whose family owns the Grog, a Lancaster Avenue restaurant frequented by college students. In August 2013, Raptis invited fellow bar owners to the Grog to brainstorm solutions. Representatives from Villanova University, Erin Pub and Kelly’s were there, and Raptis says the meeting went on for hours. A primary topic of discussion: rowdy students heading home on foot after the bars close. 

One solution is to expand Villanova’s off-campus shuttle service, which now runs until 8 p.m. on weekdays and 10:25 p.m. on Saturdays. Zelov and bar owners have proposed extending Saturday service to the far-more-realistic 2 a.m. hour. 

Gust says the university tried that idea several years ago, but it proved unsuccessful when students preferred to walk home anyway. Raptis has seen it work at his alma mater, Saint Joseph’s University. “It kept us safe—and kept the neighbors safe from us,” says the 2012 graduate.

Raptis believes extending shuttle service is so worthwhile that he’s volunteered to pay for the cost. It’s a standing offer, but no one from Villanova has contacted him since the summer meeting. 

Meanwhile, the Grog has instituted policies to address underage drinkers and over-served customers—classified as VIPs (visibly intoxicated persons). The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board imposes hefty fines for both offenses—sometimes as high as $3,000 per citation. “Bar owners are responsible for serving customers in responsible ways,” says Raptis. “The thought that someone might leave our bar and be hurt—or worse, killed—makes me sick. I’d rather make less money than see someone—including a homeowner—come to harm.”

Among Raptis’ new policies: Two forms of ID are now required to enter the Grog. The beefed-up carding has created a cache of confiscated fake IDs, and it deters most underage students. As a result, the Grog has become a spot for of-age college seniors. 

Has that hurt business? “Yes, but that’s OK with me,” Raptis says. “I hired a new chef, and we changed the menus to create an upscale environment that appeals to the entire community.”

James E. Marks couldn’t agree more with Raptis’ approach. As president of Marks & Co., he owns various apartment buildings throughout Lower Merion Township, including College Hall on Montgomery Avenue. Known to many students as the Courts, it’s been the site of many a raucous party since at least the 1970s. Various misadventures have included dancing on rooftops, urinating on carpets and in stairwells, burning furniture, destroying the building’s décor, and more. 

Fun? Not for Marks. In early 2013, he and general manager Wayne Gilinger met with representatives from the Lower Merion police and fire departments, along with Bob Duncan, head of the township’s building and planning department. College Hall had far more citations for unruly student behavior than any other property, Duncan says. 

Marks & Co. spent $20,000 to install 18 cameras in the hallways and around the exterior. The property’s superintendent is authorized to contact police at the first sign of gatherings in the courtyard or hallways. The footage is then handed over to officials to aid in the arrest and conviction of anyone who violates the law. 

Marks also changed his leases, so that any fines the company might incur are taken out of the resident’s security deposit. And anyone convicted of an offense—underage drinking, public urination, etc.—is immediately evicted. The student is also held responsible for coming up with the rest of the year’s rent, so it’s more than likely that a parent will be involved. 

College Hall residents held a courtyard party in October 2013. Lower Merion Township police officers arrived en masse—more than half the force, Duncan says—and issued a record-setting 75 citations. With the aid of a flash drive full of footage, residents are being prosecuted, and everyone faces immediate eviction from the complex. 

None of which brings any joy to Marks. “I’m not eager to punish students,” he says. “But I’m pleased we came up with policies that have dramatically reduced the problem—and its impact on the police and fire departments, and others in the neighborhood.” 

Not surprisingly, there hasn’t been another large-scale party at College Hall since October. “Let them go live somewhere else,” says Marks. “The Animal House is no more.”

While pleased with the progress he’s witnessed, Zelov says there’s a long way to go. He asked Villanova to supplement Lower Merion’s police force with its own security personnel—as West Chester University has done. That would increase manpower and defray some of the cost incurred by the township. Villanova has declined. “The university’s decision making on this issue is difficult to understand,” says Zelov. “It starts at the top, with the board of trustees and the president, and goes all the way down to the students who create mayhem on our streets. They’re all responsible, and they must accept that the community is demanding change.”


GROW, NOVA, GROW

Build it, and they will come.

1843 First day of school. Student population: 7

1914 Buildings and curriculum are updated. Student population: 132

1929 Construction begins on new facilities.Student population: 977.

1946 Student population: 2,000.

1968 Villanova welcomes its first full-time female students.

1969-89 South Campus established.

1994-2000 Eight new dorms open.

2013-14 Construction is planned for new dorms. Student population: 10,697.