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University Village residents question safety since walkway collapse

Sunday, March 9, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:13 a.m. CDT, Monday, March 10, 2014

COLUMBIA — Hanaa Almohammed has crossed the concrete walkway countless times since moving into her second-floor apartment at University Village in January.

But it wasn't until part of a nearby walkway crumbled and fell two weeks ago, that she began to notice cracks and chips in the concrete beneath her feet.

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Now, she walks more slowly, more carefully. She sometimes feels the walkway shake as she walks. Inside her apartment, she can feel the floorboards creak.

Almohammed has felt less safe since a walkway collapsed, resulting in the death of a firefighter, at Building 707 on Feb. 22. She and her husband, Mouayed Al-Toki, are among the many residents of University Village now faced with the decision to stay in their apartments or move elsewhere.

If one walkway collapsed, many wonder, why not another? Why not ours?

Despite these concerns, Al-Toki said his family will stay in their apartment in building 603. For the time being, their circumstances demand it. University Village is within walking distance of the MU College of Engineering, where Al-Toki is a graduate student. The family doesn't have a car, and moving might mean the three children would have to change schools.

The university is allowing all University Village residents to terminate their leases without penalty.

"We're trying to make sure they have any resource available to them to find alternative housing," MU spokesman Christian Basi has said.

Some have already left. A few days after the collapse, Jorge Durand, a graduate student from Peru, watched his neighbors pack their belongings into a U-Haul. They moved because they were worried about the safety of their children, he said. Their apartment is now vacant. 

Durand and his wife hope to follow suit. They will not renew their lease in May, he said, but he doesn't know yet where they'll go. 

It's not like the apartment complex is in chaos right now, Durand said, but he still can't shake the fact that someone died.

Kim Bemrose and her husband, a student at MU, have requested a transfer to Tara Apartments.

Bemrose lives on the second floor of Building 601 and said she has been scared to walk under the walkways since the collapse. 

Although wooden supports have been installed, "I don't feel safe here," Bemrose said. 

For other residents, the supports, which were installed beneath all University Village walkways the day of the collapse to provide extra stability, have been a comfort. 

Adam Fahncke, who has lived on the first floor of Building 603 for two years, said he didn't think the university would let people live at University Village if the buildings weren't safe. 

"I think the two-by-fours are an eyesore," he said. "But I'd much rather look at an eyesore than a building falling on top of me." 

These wooden supports were recommended by Trabue, Hansen and Hinshaw Inc., a structural engineering firm hired by MU to assess the buildings at University Village immediately after the collapse. The supports will provide stability and allow residents to continue living there safely for the next few months, Basi said.

Beyond that, though, the future of University Village remains uncertain. Basi said the university is discussing plans for what to do with the complex but said he did not know what those plans were.

University Village was built in 1956 and is one of four MU-owned complexes intended for graduate students and families. Its proximity to campus, affordable rent and access to child care make it desirable for older students, especially those with families, but in its almost 60 years of existence, it has fallen into disrepair.

An MU housing plan from 2008 recommended that the buildings be vacated and demolished by August 2011, citing widespread structural damage to walls and floors and identifying walkways in particular as safety hazards. During the past 10 years, repairs have been made to various walkways at the complex, according to reports released Wednesday by MU. 

Basi said that the university chose to keep University Village open because of its low cost, proximity to campus and community atmosphere.

When Almohammed visits friends at University Heights, another MU-owned complex that sits on a hill overlooking University Village, she does not feel the same things she feels at her apartment. She doesn't have to walk gingerly, the floorboards do not creak, and she can't feel the earth shake.

She'd like to that sense of security again. But for now, it's a waiting game to see what the university will do and what their options are. 

"We don't have another place to move," she said. "But we will see what they do to our apartment."

Stephanie Ebbs contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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