South campus transitions from family homes to mega complexes


When BYU administrative staff member Jessie Embry attended BYU in the ’70s, her world extended little beyond Campus Plaza, where she was living at the time.

“The world was my campus and I never left it,” Embry said.

In 1979 Embry moved back to Provo, only this time taking up residence south of BYU near Franklin Elementary School, which is located at 350 South 600 West.

Since then, she’s watched the area south of campus transform.

One of these changes was a shift in several demographics.

“When I first moved into my area, my ward was one of those often referred to as a ‘newlywed and nearly-dead’ congregation,” Embry said. “Today all the nearly-deads are dead and in their place are more newlyweds and a large amount of Hispanics.”

Embry also watched the older homes in the area sell into the hands of developers who then divided the homes into apartments and sold them to students. Other houses were bulldozed and replaced with apartment complexes.

“It was the late ’80s and mid-’90s when my friend started campaigning to save the houses from being divided up or removed,” Embry said. “Still, the strip of land along 500 South between 400 and 500 West were replaced with a new series of homes which attempted a sort of Victorian style.”

Embry points out, however, that the transformation of Provo into a college town began long before she moved into the area. She attributes one of the first great changes to the post-WWII era when BYU expanded and many businesses moved into Center Street, pushing residential out farther.

Another major change took place in the early ’90s when BYU announced its plans to branch out into the mile radius south of campus.

“That created quite a stir,” Embry said.

Later, in 2010, that mile extended into two.

Idaho native Ron Purcell bought a home on 600 East and 800 North almost six years ago as a way to provide good housing for his children, who have attended BYU over the years.

During those years, he said, he’s watched the leveling of individual homes in exchange for larger apartment buildings.

“We’ve just watched them tear out the old homes which, like ours, are family homes built roughly 60 years ago,” he said.

Purcell said the home he leases, which is a duplex, has required major renovations through the years to keep up with the newer apartment buildings, including entirely new kitchens, bathrooms, windows, and the installation of washers and dryers.

With his youngest about to graduate, Purcell said he hopes to sell the place for what they have invested in it and then some.

Founders and managers at PeakCapitalPartners are among those constructing larger apartment complexes downtown. Currently, they are working on a development that will house nearly 1,000 students when it’s done.

As BYU alumni, when they saw the opportunity to build in the area just south of campus, they took it.

“As graduates ourselves, we are all familiar with the need for newer, nicer and more technologically advanced housing for BYU students,” manager Jeff Burningham said.

Towering over the variety of salt-box styled houses and gabled roofs which stand as living relics of mid-20th century Americana, the block-wide housing development offers a possibly tell-tale contrast to the area.

However, according to Gary McGinn, Provo’s director of community development, there are no major residential changes pushing themselves through the city council that would affect the area.

“There are a few apartment-oriented project proposals that we’ve seen but they are not being pushed through,” McGinn said.

Of course, students are among those most affected by the changes taking place south of campus.

Berta Marquez first began studying at BYU in 2001 and has lived in the area ever since.

As a student, she enjoyed living in houses more than apartments.

“There’s a certain privacy and charm that comes from living in the homes, especially the older ones,” Marquez said. “For example I lived in a former polygamist house at one point and the thing, I kid you not, had underground pathways to other polygamist houses so the families could escape from government authorities who came to imprison polygamists once it became illegal.”

Marquez said she also found a trend in the nature of those who chose to live in houses.

“In my experiences, students who lived in houses tended to be very cosmopolitan,” Marquez said. “I always found myself with groups of girls that were all very into music and out to save the world, so to speak, when I lived in houses.”

Marquez realizes, however, the drawbacks often associated with the antique houses.

“Their age often showed and the frequent dishonesty of managers often kept them that way, so I can see the draw of living in a newer, better furnished apartment,” she said.

Rachel Dabb is a sophomore studying communications at BYU. An Orem native and the daughter of a real estate developer, Dabb was raised with a keen awareness of the development of real estate in the area.

“When I was young my dad and I would go on drives and look at houses and construction sites on Sunday afternoons,” Dabb said in an email. “The houses south of campus have history: there are stories attached to each of them.”

Dabb’s family recently bought a house on Center Street built before the day of indoor plumbing and electricity; the wall paper plastered to the walls was produced from companies no longer in business. According to its owners, it was once the mayor’s house and considered “quite stately” during its day.

Dabb said she wants to see the authenticity of the older homes preserved and new ones built to fit the style of the houses which remain.

In her area, Dabb said, there is an apartment complex built in the ’60s among a series of neighborhood houses from the early ’20s and east coast-styled complexes down the streets.

“I don’t want [the houses] to be remolded, just taken care of,” she said. “I’d like to see the area south of campus reclaim its past.”

Down on Center Street, a three-story brick building is under construction. Once a series of NuSkin apartments, the building will supply Provo’s first studio apartments.

The real estate developers over the project said they feel the coming of studio apartments will bring a new and important era for downtown housing.

“These studio apartments will open up a whole new world downtown because they are so affordable,” developer Peter Harradine said. “While real estate in general may be having a hard time, people are renting studio apartments more than ever.”

Right now, however, the site is one of bulldozers and bare, plaster walls. Wiring hangs naked on the walls and debris coats the floors. The way it sits, halfway between what is old and what is new, the building stands as a parallel to the city itself — a microcosm of Provo.

In this case, the developers decided to maintain the style of the original building and neighborhood. This has not always been the case, as seen in the eclectic landscape Dabb described. As for what the future holds, it is anyone’s guess.

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