Only one bid received on $15M project

Construction of the French Village, a new student housing development at Vincennes University, has gotten off to a rather rocky start.

Lara Dawson, an architect with RQAW, told members of the Knox County Development Corp. Friday morning during their regular monthly meeting at the university's Isaac K. Beckes Student Union, that officials let the French Creole-inspired development out for bid recently only to see one company — Wolfe Construction, 2724 Washington Ave. — respond with a price.

“So thank you,” she said with a smile, to which the room laughed, as she turned to Steve Wolfe, who was sitting across from her during the early morning meeting.

But with that single bid, she said, the university didn't exactly find what it was looking for.

Not only was that one bid too high — she did not mention a specific price, although the project has been estimated to cost upwards of $15 million — the university wasn't comfortable moving forward when they'd only received a response from one contractor.

“We really need to have another bidder,” she said. “So we've done some value engineering, since we were over budget, and we plan on going back out to bid next week.

“We have some more confidence in terms of where we are with the numbers this time,” she said. “And we're using some different bidding methods to get more people involved and to expand our options.”

And while they did make some modifications to the project in an effort to lessen the cost, Dawson said the one thing university officials and architects aren't willing to do is sacrifice in terms of what the finished product looks like.

They're determined, she said, to keep the French Creole-inspired structures just as they are currently designed.

“We refuse to let the design of the exterior fall away,” she said. “We're going to do everything we can to keep the integrity of that original design.

“Because the one thing Phil was passionate about was how (the development) looked.”

Phil Rath, the university's former vice-president of finance and government relations, just before his death in July led the charge to see the housing development, situated in the southwestern-most portion of the city's Historic District, move forward.

He battled both state and local historic preservationists who wanted to see the four square blocks of buildings and houses — many of them in unsightly or even deplorable condition — saved and convinced the city's Historic Review Board to raze them to make way for the new French Quarter-looking development.

Those HRB members who voted in favor of the university's request believed the VU project would do more for the overall Historic District than the historic-yet-neglected homes that were there.

One house, however, was spared as university officials promised to save a historic, corner-lot home at 617 N. First St. Sitting at First and Shelby streets, it's beloved by historic preservationists for its architecture and notable red tile roof. It's also listed as “contributing” in an inventory of the structures in the city's Historic District.

University officials had hoped to turn into a president's home, but that plan has been abandoned, although what use will be substituted they haven't said.

The French Village development will be a mix of two- and three-story buildings, enough to house more than 200 students, and they will be targeted, university officials have said, to non-traditional students and those seeking 4-year degrees.

“And I still think it's going to be a great project,” Dawson said.

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