Downtown Westfield neighbors air complaints

Ward 3 City Councilor Brain Hoose speaks about some of the complaints he receives stemming from the late-night activities of college students in the downtown area, during a meeting staged by the Westfield State University Neighborhood Advisory Board at Landsdown Place last night. (Photo by The Westfield News/Carl E. Hartdegen)

WESTFIELD (The Westfield News) – Fewer than a dozen city residents attended an open meeting of Westfield State University’s Neighborhood Advisory Board last night but they were united in their belief that university officials should do more to control their loud and rowdy students who roam the city’s downtown streets late at night, making their neighborhood miserable on weekends.

The college officials responded by saying that, although they can exert considerable control over the 200 students living in Landsdowne Place, an ‘on-campus’ residential hall, university police and other university personnel have no jurisdiction over the 500-800 students living in free market housing.

Residents were free with their complaints about noise and vandalism the students are seen to be responsible for but got very little tangible assistance from the university and city police who spoke at the meeting. John Romani and members of his family were at the meeting to complain about the young people who roam his neighborhood at night.“I think that Westfield State, they need to take a bigger responsibility for having more of their people down here patrolling these kids,” Romani said. “It’s not just the city cops, it’s the Westfield State Cops” who should be patrolling to control the roving youths whose casual vandalism and unfortunate habit of urinating in inappropriate places are ever-present problems for their neighbors. He asked if the impact on the neighborhood was considered before the university started housing students downtown or, he asked “was the idea to just get us out of here?’He said he will move from the area.“We are going to get out, eventually”, he said but in the meantime “you almost feel like you’re a little bug” and nobody takes the residents into consideration. He said the students have “no respect” for the property and sensibilities of the residents and no concern for the impact of their casual vandalism and disturbances.

Anthony Casciano, the director of WSU public safety, said that his officers have no jurisdiction downtown, except for on the property the university leases and pointed out that the WSU force also has a campus to patrol.

Ron St. George, a resident of the nearby General Shepard Apartments, said “what we, and everybody else in this area, put up with is phenomenal.”St. George pointed out that many of the residents of his building, which is primarily occupied by senior citizens, have a variety of handicaps.“Some are totally disabled,” he said but all of them “can expect to be woken up, at least four or five times a night” by students “screaming, hollering, running in the middle of the street. I don’t know what they’re doing but it’s bad for them.” “This problem should have been addressed from day one,” he said, “There should be fixed responsibility. There should be accountability and consequences for behavior that is ridiculous to young men and women.” “I myself, I have to sleep with ear plugs and a fan running,” he said.

Victoria Landry, the chair of the Neighborhood Advisory Board, thanked St. George for his patience and said “It’s not all the students who are causing the problem and I really fell bad about it. A resident assistant at Landsdowne Place, Eric Duval, agreed and said that as long as the students are in the building, which is technically university-controlled on-campus housing, the staff can keep them under control but said “once they go out into the street we can’t do anything about them.”

The advice for residents who have an immediate problem was simply to call police when a disturbance occurs but some preventative procedures were offered. Students say the problems are caused by a small minority and they sympathize with area residents.

A student at the meeting, Robert Schultz, suggested that, after a resident has been disturbed by youthful neighbors, they should visit the house the next day and ask for a contact telephone number. Then, Schultz said, a resident can text a student during a subsequent disturbance and the threat of police intervention will moderate their behavior.

Sgt. Eric Hall, the commander of the city’s community policing unit, said that city police take steps minimize the problem early in the academic year by visiting as many college residences as possible to advise the tenants about the laws and expectations. He said that officer also work to limit alcohol access by compliance checks at local package stores and said that city police patrol the area in force on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. “We’re writing a couple thousand dollars of citation on weekends” but have also taken proactive steps to make ensure someone is responsible for rented apartments. Hall said that landlords are being held accountable for their tenants and can be charged with keeping a disorderly house if their tenants are unruly. Also, Hall said, landlords are encouraged to require that the parents of the young tenants co-sign the leases so they are also responsible. He said that, when there are problems at an address, they first address it with the tenants, then their parents and finally with the landlords. He said that the ultimate sanction is a forced eviction but said that, when he sends letters to the parents of offenders “50 per cent of the time that takes care of the problem” and further action is not needed. Hall agreed that speaking with the neighbors before, or after, a problem has occurred may be the best way to limit the problem as communication is a key component.

Vigilance is also necessary and residents should not hesitate to call police when there are disturbance on the city streets. Calling university officials is only useful when the problem occurs in university housing and, the consensus seems to be, that the problem is most often elsewhere.

Media Credit: The Westfield News

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