Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Greek drama

From: Los Angeles Daily News

The Greek system at CSUN was on the brink.

Police had been dispatched to disperse inebriated partygoers up to no good. Neighbors demanded the university designate on-campus housing for fraternities and sororities. Vilified students felt like pariahs.

"At this point, fraternities are doing everything with kid gloves," the president of the Interfraternity Council said. "I've made it known that we have to be real careful. The Greek system feels it's hanging on for dear life."

That was spring 1986. Twenty years later, tensions are again running high. Complaints about the fraternities have recently consumed hours of discussion at neighborhood council meetings, and the City Attorney's Office is pursuing cases to shut down some. Officials declined further comment.

With the fall quarter beginning today and fraternity rush week in tow, neighbors are bracing for raucous parties, while students are clinging to CSUN's unsanctioned college experience.

The Northridge East Neighborhood Council wants California State University, Northridge, to take responsibility for its fraternities and sororities, particularly by creating a Greek Row, and to take the burden off families and elderly residents living near the Greek houses that dot Halsted Street, Zelzah Avenue and other suburban streets.

"We look at this as a defining moment for us," said council President Kelly Lord. "Either CSUN has rules and they follow them, or they do not."

The current spat is the latest on a long list of grievances between Northridge and the state college that put it on the map. Unchecked campus growth and unbridled traffic have long topped that list. But the Greek issue pops up like a gopher every few years.

Nude volleyball?

"With these frat parties going on, some of them are getting to the point the neighbors can't even enjoy their weekends," said Steve Patel, who lives near CSUN. "It's not just the adjacent homes. They end up parking throughout the streets, littering, making noise."

Neighbors complain of loud music. Blinding party lights. Nude volleyball.

Well, that match actually was played a decade ago by the Sigma Chi guys, for what reason, no one seems to remember. But unhappy neighbors speak of the incident as if it were a semesterly event.

Students say locals have unrealistic expectations.

"They want to live next to a college and yet they want it to be like they live in a forest and there is no noise," said Justin Weisman, 25, who graduated in June and lives in one of the homes on Halsted.

The problem is CSUN never planned for Greek life. There was a push in the mid-1980s to designate 10-plus acres for fraternity and sorority houses, followed by a university offer to move the organizations into a residential tower on campus. But those never materialized.

"They have just unfortunately inherited a situation that is 30 years old," said Jamison Keller, the school's Panhellenic adviser.

Instead of fraternities and sororities living side by side in 20-room mini-mansions, much like they do at most major universities, Greek organizations rent one- and two-story homes around CSUN.

Illegal use

Most of them operate illegally because their houses are not zoned for high-density living. To reduce unwanted attention, some have taken down their letters and profess to not be a "frat house." A few organizations have sought conditional-use permits from the city.

"We've gone through a tremendous amount of work," said Greg Morris, the brother in charge of getting Sigma Chi into compliance with its permit, which has included building a nine-foot-tall fence around the entire house - at a cost of $9,000 - and planting 30 Italian cypress trees three feet apart to create a visual wall above the fence.

Because of years of neighbors complaining, CSUN's 11 Interfraternity Council fraternities and six sororities host most of their larger parties - several hundred students - at nearby bars and clubs. They use campus rooms for weekly meetings.

The residences inhabited by a handful of brothers exist as a home base, a place for informal Thursday night bashes. Other than a place for bros to throw back a few six packs, they say, the houses aren't socially used for much more.

Most of these houses are located on Halsted, which runs along the northern edge of campus. Students consider its route east of Zelzah the closest thing they have to Frat Row.

The loudest complaints, however, come west of Zelzah on Halsted's 18200 block. A few hundred yards from university dorms, the only residences are two single-story homes with long wooden fences that enclose dead lawns, tattered couches, empty Bud Light cans and houses full of testosterone.

The residences are occupied by members of Pi Kappa Alpha and Zeta Beta Tau, two CSUN fraternities. These are not frat houses, technically - PKA and ZBT letters do not hang from the homes. They are unmaintained and filthy, but they are a far cry from "Animal House."

"It's ridiculous. We'll have five people come over, and the cops will come up - and the cops will tell us this is ridiculous," said Dan Schneider, 23, who lives with the ZBTers.

No shootings or stabbings have occurred at fraternities during CSUN Police Chief Anne P. Glavin's four years on the job, nor have any related cases of sexual assault been reported to her department. Glavin said "98 percent" of the Greek-related complaints deal with parking, noise and litter.

"There is not a knee-jerk solution," she said, adding that students should be respectful of their neighbors. "But I've been in the business 30 years. This is not a new problem for college communities."

Last spring, ZBT notified neighbors of an upcoming event to raise money for breast cancer. The philanthropy event included a Chippendale-style show at which sorority girls would buy dates with the student strippers. The neighbors pushed back, and the event was canceled.

Housing turnover

The pressure has caused regular turnover in the run-down houses rented by fraternity members. Sigma Phi Epsilon gave up on a three-bedroom Halsted home in April. But it wasn't replaced by a family of four or a few young professionals. In moved three members of Pi Kappa Alpha.

"Who else is going to want to live there?" Schneider said. "Have you seen that house?"

CSUN is a commuter campus at heart, with 2,200 beds for its 33,000 students. With an average age of 27, only 4 percent of the student body claims Greek membership, compared with about 12 percent at UCLA and 20 percent at USC. But over the years it has grown in stature and in admissions draw.

"This is no longer Valley State College," said Los Angeles Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the Northridge district and has lobbied CSUN to establish a Greek Row. "They are bringing in students from all over the state, from all over the world. And they need to evolve."

The 48-year-old campus recently unveiled its growth plan. Called Envision 2035, it detailed goals to build 600 faculty and staff housing units, expand on-campus housing for 2,500 students and construct a $100 million performing arts center.

No Greek Row

Left out was a Greek Row, which would cost millions to create.

"As we went out and had conversations on and off campus, there was not a big push for that," Dean of Students William C. Watkins said. "If that had emerged, that kind of need is directly in competition with academic space needs. We needed to make sure that we had adequate facilities to take care of our primary mission, which is teaching and learning.

"I don't imagine this is a challenge that is going to disappear overnight."

Patel wishes it would. He attended the University of Southern California, with its stately fraternity and sorority houses centered in a T-shape among the apartments east of Hoover Street. And he blames CSUN for forcing neighbors to deal with its students.

"This is typical of CSUN," said Patel, a real estate investor who works out of his home. "The leadership of CSUN adheres to the minimal requirements to get by. If a student practiced the same criteria, they'd fail in life."

That's not to say Northridge doesn't benefit from having a state university. Besides being one of the largest employers in the San Fernando Valley and pouring millions annually into the local economy, CSUN gives this safe community some of that enlightened-minds spirit.

But it's difficult to live alongside a college campus without dealing with college students - both when they're a blessing and when they're a curse. The solution, according to the past land-use chairman of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council: Live west of Tampa Avenue.

Judie Levin wouldn't relent on that issue when she and her husband moved to Northridge. And she has little sympathy for newcomers who don't follow that advice.

"The neighbors, as far as I am concerned, made a mistake in moving there," she said, "and now they are stuck."