UMCP's 'Knox Box' apartments demolished and replaced

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (WJLA) - University of Maryland-College Park senior Joe Thomas admits his two-bedroom apartment is on the messy side.

"But it's typical for a Knox Box," Thomas said.

There's a ceiling leak in the living area, a pile of recycling trash in the corner, no fewer than twenty empty beer bottles on a table, and a small air-conditioning unit in the window. He shares the space with one roommate -- if you don't count the mice.

"We have mice. But last year it was bugs -- ants and roaches. It's always something," Thomas said with a smile.

Thomas, a low-key physics major, actually likes his living arrangement for a few reasons: it's on the edge of campus, it's an easy walk to class, and he enjoys the community that gathers for tailgates, grilling, and pick-up football in the large shared yard across the street. Also, at $1,300 a month for one apartment -- split with his roommate -- he considers it affordable.

On-campus dorms cost less at face value: a little more than $6,000 a year. But students find that a mandatory meal plan boosts costs above Knox Box living. Students point to The Varsity and The View for upscale student living, where each resident pays $900 a month at minimum.

Knox Boxers argue that they don't need yet another fancy highrise, but beginning as soon as classes end in 2014, the majority of Knox Box apartments will be demolished to make way for a new community called Terrapin Row. It will be fully functional by 2016.

The plaza will include six buildings, 429 units with 1,567 beds, restaurants, bars, shops, a Village Green, and a cascading staircase, modeled after Rome's Spanish steps.

"It will be a gateway directly to campus," explained Bob Keane, Managing Principal at WDG Architecture in Washington. "We want it to be pedestrian-friendly, bike-accessible, a place to hang out, to see and be seen."

But Keane doesn't take the demolition of Knox Box apartments lightly. He lived in Knox Box for two years with his wife when they were students at UMD in the late 80's.

"This has become a blighted area. The whole community is really excited about the possibilities here," said Keane.

Keane also dismissed students' concerns that they'll be priced out of Terrapin Row. "$1,600 to $1,900 for a Knox Box doesn't sound affordable to me. There will be competitively-priced housing options. "

The notoriety of Knox Box living hit a low point in 2006 when a College Park student died in a fire after being trapped in one of the apartments the local fire department had deemed unsafe. The buildings' owners were cited for code violations. Another fire in 2012 displaced nine students. In addition, since it is situated off campus, residents are more vulnerable to low-level crime.

"I guess they are known as the projects of College Park," said Wesley Barthelmes-Grant, a senior. "But I've met some of the most talented and creative people and some great friends here."

Knowing they are the last residents of Knox Box, some students expressed nostalgia for the enduring history.

"My dad tapped his foot on the wood floors and said, 'Pretty sure these are the exact same floors we had when I went here,'" said Joey DelCoco, also a senior.

Just uphill in the manicured Washington Quad, a beautiful residential section of campus, junior Ryan Mazurick was not feeling sympathetic.

"It's time to tear them down and build something more representative of the University of Maryland," he said.

As the sun set over the Knox Box yard, a few guys played a game of touch football. Neel Hegde steered his 10-week old puppy Mojo away from something nasty in the grass -- a remnant from a Thursday night party.

"It's kind of sad, but I guess it's inevitable," said Thomas, who promised to clean up his Knox Box before the weekend.