West Magnolia Avenue is a highly trafficked area. With its proximity to campus and several restaurants, including a famous chicken franchise, many Auburn students traverse the area on a regular basis.
The area is often busy, as cars and bikes zoom past a line of drive-thru patrons. A sign bearing the University’s name welcomes students and visitors to the engineering side of campus while Tiger Transit buses pull into a loop to drop off students.
Standing right across the street, nestled between Chick-fil-A and Domino's Pizza, was a house. From the outside, the old brick building didn’t look like much, but to the brothers of Auburn’s chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha, it meant so much more.
“There were people I didn’t even know, and they called us pizza frat,” said Stephen Herrera, senior in industrial and systems engineering and a former resident of the house.
For close to a decade, Lambda Chi brothers occupied the building’s nine bedrooms. The nine brothers would share two kitchens, three bathrooms and two living areas while maintaining a private bedroom.
The furniture would come and go over the years, as different brothers moved in and out of the house. One constant aspect throughout the house’s tenure was a wall of frames, each holding a photo of a previous tenant and lifelong brother.
“We had a wall in there [where] anybody that lived there put their picture, a framed picture,” Herrera said. “Anyone that ever lived there was in a framed picture.”
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Herrera planned to leave his photo on the wall after he moved out of the house at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, but he never got the opportunity.
The property owner sold the house, along with several other properties, to a developing company. Now a joint student housing and retail complex is slated to sit in the spot where “pizza frat” once stood.
“A couple of guys that lived in there, their older brothers lived in there as well,” Herrera said. “It was definitely a passed-down house.”
The house was important to more than Herrera and its last tenants. It was the go-to spot for gameday activities, a gathering place for events or a spot for a night out.
“We were torn up,” Herrera said. “We got it our junior year. We constantly had like gameday festivities there. We were always out.”
The house was passed down through the fraternity brothers. Current tenants would select members to live in the house. They would then sign a lease with a landlord.
Usually brothers only lived in the house for their final year at Auburn. Herrera and his roommates received the go-ahead at the end of their sophomore year to live in the house, giving them the chance to live there for two years.
“Since we had guys that were little brothers of the current tenants, they just kind of gave it up,” Herrera said.
Shortly after they moved in, their landlord informed them the property would soon be sold and they would likely not be able to live in the house the following school year. The brothers got to work finding a new place, but continued to check back, hoping their beloved house would still be standing for the first home football game.
Much to Herrera’s dismay, the property was sold off and scheduled for demolition. He and his brothers moved out over the summer.
“It was a let-down,” Herrera said. “It was super convenient if you ever wanted to hang out between classes.”
The development planned for the area consists of a 719-bed student housing complex which sits above ground-level retail spaces that run along West Magnolia Avenue.
Some of the occupants of these retail spaces have already been decided. One such occupant is Chick-fil-A, one of the restaurants that was in the area the new development will soon cover.
The Chick-fil-A inside of the development will be all around larger than the previous stand-alone restaurant. While the kitchen and dining area will have more space, the main feature is the drive-thru, which will have space for 36 cars to queue. The current drive-thru has space for about 12 to 15 cars, said franchise owner Bob McFadden.
The plans for the lengthened drive-thru went through the City Council in June and was approved. It was the only portion of the new development that needed the Council’s go ahead, said City Planning Director Forrest Cotten.
“Outside of that it meets the requirements and the intent of the Urban Neighborhood West District in terms of the uses that are being employed,” Cotten said.
That district consists of land to the west of the Urban Core or the main downtown Auburn area. When the downtown master plan was drafted and adopted in May 2014, part of the plan was to limit purpose-built student housing or private dorms, such as this development, in the heart of downtown while encouraging it in surrounding areas.
“At that time there was a concern that we were going to be overwhelmed by private dorms in the downtown proper or the Urban Core or that might alter the character of the downtown ,such that the non-student demographic might not feel as welcome downtown,” Cotten said.
Since there was already student housing built to the west of downtown, Cotten and others that worked on the downtown master plan thought it made sense to encourage redevelopment or development of new student housing in that area.
That’s why we are seeing developments like the one along West Magnolia Avenue, and why Cotten said he thinks this isn’t the last large development that will pop up in that area.
While this area is often filled with cars and pedestrians, Cotten thinks this development will actually ease some of the traffic concerns in the area.
“Largely during the week when they’re in school, because these projects are within such close proximity to campus, and because it’s so difficult to park on campus, they’re largely leaving their vehicles in the garage,” Cotten said.
He said he hopes that the walk-ability of the area and the tendency to walk instead of driving will eventually bring a grocery store to the urban core or surrounding areas.
The main concern of many city staffers and elected officials remains the overall need for purpose-built student housing.
“We’re getting into an area now where I think we have to be extremely cautious about the balance between supply and demand,” Cotten said. “We’re currently looking at those issues now in terms of what our market studies have said we can reasonably absorb.”
Oversaturating the market has been a concern of Mayor Ron Anders since he took office in November 2018. He created a student housing task force to study the issue and make recommendations to the full City Council.
“My concern remains that we are becoming very saturated with student housing in Auburn,” Anders said. “It’s something we’ve got to take a holistic view of and understand the dynamics of what are our University’s plan in the future for enrollment and housing, how much do we have in town and how much do we need to continue to be building.”
The task force is still working to process information and make suggestions, but Anders hopes to make progress on the issue within the next few months, he told The Plainsman.
As for the development along West Magnolia Avenue, everything is set to move forward. During the City Council’s meeting Tuesday night, the Council approved a development agreement and license agreement for airspace encroachment.
The development agreement was the end result of a design review process HP Auburn LLC, the developing company of the project on West Magnolia Avenue, went through with the city’s design review board. They were not required to meet with the board, since the development is allowed by right, but choose to do so, Cotten said.
The board provided feedback on the design of the project, to which the developers made many of the suggested changes, Cotten said during the City Council meeting.
So as the buildings like Chick-fil-A and pizza frat come down, Herrera, his fraternity brothers and many other Auburn students find themselves reminiscing on what once stood tall. Some have even found ways to keep the memories from their beloved home and go-to hang out spot alive.
When Herrera visited the site of his former home last month, he met two girls looking for a memento of the house for an old friend of his.
“He wanted me to grab bricks, for the memories,” Herrera said.
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