Triad City Beat
May 03, 2023
Featured photo: The Villages at Wake Forest include almost four dozen homes built for students. (photo by Will Zimmerman for The Assembly)
Kent Strupe's email reached the office of Wake Forest University President Susan Wente before she did. Ditto the offices of the football coach, Winston-Salem police chief, a city council member, and mayor pro tempore.
Messages that arrive at 7:36 a.m. on a Monday are seldom a welcomed sight. Even less so when their subject line reads, "Out of Control Party."
Strupe, founder and president of the Historic Oak Crest non-profit, had lived in the same home for the better part of the past six decades. He had seen plenty of parties—or get-togethers, functions, bangers, ragers, whatever you want to call them. He thought he had seen it all.
That is, until "The Mother of All Parties"—the one that prompted his email on November 1, 2021.
In 11 paragraphs, six bullet points, and 12 photos, Strupe documented what he’d witnessed that Saturday night. In the message's final lines, he demanded accountability from the four Wake Forest University football players and Ashley Carros, the landlord responsible for 3830 Freds Road. The newly renovated home, located just beyond the campus’ northern boundary, practically backs up to Strupe's backyard.
In his email, Strupe included an exacting, timestamped account of the night's events, noting he smelled something sinister brewing from the get-go.
10 p.m. – Cars begin rolling in steadily.
The guests arrived in football helmets and cheerleaders’ outfits, nurse's scrubs, rabbit ears, panda onesies and Hugh Hefner-esque velvet jackets. It was Hallo-weekend, and the Demon Deacons had their first 8-0 start in program history. The night was young. The neighbors were not.
11:25 p.m. – Dozens of cars parked on either side of Freds Road. Students [continuing] to arrive by foot.
12:00 a.m. – Party growing fast. 40–50 cars. More speeding through the neighborhood, exceeding 40 mph. [Cars and students still] pouring in by the dozens.
12:10 a.m. – [One neighbor] calls the Winston-Salem Police Department.
12:13 a.m. – My FIRST call to city police.
12:18 a.m. – [Another neighbor] calls city police.
12:45 a.m. – I call Wake Forest Police requesting backup … Spoke to a supervisor but denied service as this is not in their jurisdiction. Many calls have now been made by neighbors to city police.
12:49 a.m. – 500–600 students … Emergency … Everything is gridlocked and out of control. [Neighbors continue] calling city police and begging to send someone ASAP.
Oak Crest's residents were accustomed to seeing Strupe, in his white New Balance sneakers, making his rounds through the neighborhood; there is always support to be garnered, updates to report. The neighbors are intent on preserving Oak Crest's quiet charm, none more so than Strupe. But the night of October 30, there was little he could do but sit and watch the pandemonium. Cars and trucks packed the razor-thin street like sardines. Brake lights basked students in red as they urinated into bushes.
Neighbors found students parked in their driveways, their yards littered with bottles and cans. Several screaming matches broke out. One neighbor says they were spit on. A 90-year-old woman, sole occupant of one of the two houses on Freds Road besides 3830, called Strupe in a panic. Calls to university and city police rained in.
The single city police officer who arrived around 1 a.m. had no trouble finding the house. The piercing veil of a student laying into their car horn pervaded, drowning out even the party music. Within ten minutes, campus police were called in for backup.
Not until almost 3:30 a.m. did the final cruiser roll out of Oak Crest. But the damage was already done.
"Nice has worn off!" Strupe wrote in his email. "Residents are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!"
Police never officially charged the four football players, though they didn't get off unscathed. Wake Forest has its own set procedure for reviewing and condemning violations of the code of conduct, and repeat offenders often receive the strictest discipline. The "Mother of All Parties" was not the first the four players threw at 3830, and in the end, their lease with Freds Road LLC was terminated and they had to vacate the home.
But Strupe and others had petitioned for even more decisive action—they never wanted to see another student-tenant living in the home at 3830 Freds Road, and asked Wake Forest to indefinitely remove the home from its approved off-campus housing list.
Wake Forest did not remove it, and by the second week of January, four new students were moving in.
Soon thereafter, the neighbors started printing and distributing their signs: "No NEW student housing in Oak Crest."
The clash between universities and their neighbors might as well be biblical. "Town vs. gown" has played out thousands of times—Yale and New Haven, Columbia and Manhattan's Morningside Heights, University of Georgia and Athens, Duke and Durham, UNC and Chapel Hill.
Universities have always sought to extend beyond campus gates, literally and figuratively. It's a coup or a curse, depending on your perspective.
"A university's interests have never been fully dictated by teaching classes and conducting research," Davarian Baldwin, professor of American Studies at Trinity University told The Assembly. "Schools are often the biggest developers in their cities or towns, and despite their non-profit designations, their interests are profit-driven."
The story in Winston-Salem is both perfectly indistinguishable and utterly unique.
Over the past decade, the suburban neighborhoods surrounding Wake Forest's main campus have seen a proliferation of student housing. Today, only a few slices of undeveloped land remain. The 16 remaining acres on either side of Freds Road—tucked deep inside Oak Crest, snuggled directly against the campus’ northwest boundary—have unprecedented value.
To those who’ve lived in this neighborhood for decades, the value is in the trees, the charm, and the way of life. To developers and LLCs, who already own 40 percent of the neighborhood's homes, it's untapped potential. Besides, what's 16 more acres in the middle of 100 already developed?
What's left to save?
For Strupe, the answer is obvious.
I first met him just across the street from his home, under Oak Crest's historical marker, on a bright Monday morning in October.
"Our sign," as Strupe calls it, had been unveiled two years earlier, almost to the day. The event—held on his birthday, coincidentally—recognized Oak Crest's entrance onto the National Register of Historic Places.
Henry William Fries and his brothers, heirs of one of North Carolina's most prominent families of the industrial era, designed Oak Crest in June 1923. "A community of friends in the shadow of the city," read a full-page advertisement the Fries brothers took out in the Winston-Salem Journal. "Those who love country life can find it here, and having near neighbors, need never be lonely."
Oak Crest's 27 wooded multi-acre lots were within driving distance of downtown, the largest city in North Carolina at the time—headquarters of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and home to its sprawling cigarette factories. Even the smallest lots could accommodate large homes. Some bought multiple contiguous lots and moved with their extended family. With its trees, lakes, ponds, and grassy knolls, Oak Crest became a rural haven just beyond the city limits.
The neighborhood drew more families in the post-war decade and expanded to compensate. The dirt road was smoothed over with sand and clay, and the original plots were subdivided into smaller parcels.
"People that moved here loved it," says Strupe, whose parents bought a ranch house in the neighborhood in 1958. "Everyone knew their neighbors … We still have many second- and third-generation people living here."
In 1956, Wake Forest College moved 100 miles west from its original, namesake location north of Raleigh to a tract of land the Reynolds estate had donated abutting Oak Crest to the southeast.
Many of the selling points that had lured families to Oak Crest were equally attractive to the college: the sprawling land, with its grand magnolias and a smattering of marigolds and sunflowers, and its proximity to downtown Winston-Salem.
Wake Forest brought new attention to Oak Crest. Roads were paved with gravel and tar, plots were further subdivided, and construction evolved. Many of the homes built in the mid-20th century were outfitted to include rental units such as attic or garage apartments. Others included additions to fit home-businesses: a doctor's office, two florists, a beauty shop, and a kindergarten center.
Faculty and staff flocked for homes within walking distance of campus. Students started to occupy more of the rental units.
Strupe was born in 1964, three years before the school became a university.
He left Oak Crest in the late ‘80s, then returned in the early 2000s to care for his aging parents. Strupe was disappointed to find that, though all the homes were still there, he no longer knew the people who lived in them.
Like many other schools across the country, Wake Forest's total enrollment was steadily increasing—from under 4,800 in 1982 to 6,300 in 2000 and now nearly 9,000. So too was the need for off-campus student housing.
In 1980, the majority of students living in Oak Crest were scattered between garage and attic apartments. But as the older generation aged out, landlords scooped up more available properties and converted them into student housing. By 2019, the university housed students, visiting professors, or other associates in 19 of the neighborhood's 195 homes. Students were the sole occupants of another 63.
"This is not the same neighborhood we grew up in," Strupe says.
In the neighborhoods surrounding Wake Forest University, student housing had existed in the form of rental units since the mid 20th century. First there were the garage or attic apartments, then in the ‘80s and ‘90s came the first wholly occupied student homes. It wasn't until the 2010s that homes designed specifically for students became more of the norm.
Ashley Carros was at the center of that shift.
Dressed in a smart suit and fashionable patterned jacket, Carros speaks about the student housing market the way Jobs did the iPhone or Walt did Disney: with the passion and conviction of a creator.
With a degree in the fine arts from Vanderbilt and a wealth of family knowledge about real estate, she built the model that has come to define student housing as it exists around Wake Forest.
In other parts of the country, the beginning of the 21st century saw student housing growing into a business unto itself. It wasn't until 2011 that Carros, on a visit to Elon University with her son, saw what was trending at other schools. She returned to Winston-Salem convinced that there was a massive yet untapped market she could cater to. "Nobody here was designing anything for students," Carros said.
"I knew there was an area very near Wake that was not being economically supported and had very marginalized homes, unsafe homes that were constantly popping up on sale," Carros said. "Houses that were anywhere near what I already owned, that were older or not well cared for, I started buying them."
With the help of a Winston-Salem builder, Carros developed her first set of five small cottage-style homes around the corner from campus—"fun and colorful," she says, with four bedrooms and four adjoining bathrooms. In fall 2012, her first tenants moved in.
Rent per-bedroom rivaled what you might find in a more urban area, but Wake Forest students eager to live in a wholly-occupied student development gobbled up the leases. Within months, undergraduates were calling to put their names down for leases years in advance. "I looked around and asked myself, How can I continue to improve this neighborhood?" Carros said.
Carros said much of the housing stock she has bought and redeveloped since then was functionally obsolete—a poorly structured bathroom, a kitchen without space for a dishwasher, a bedroom that connects to a bedroom that connects to a bathroom. It was a drag on property values.
Carros’ LLC started compiling multi-acre property in the neighborhoods around Wake Forest, buying up "very old homes, either abandoned, marginalized," or that older homeowners were eager to sell. Many of the parcels exceeded 20,000 square feet, but the area was zoned for single or multi-family homes with a minimum lot size of 9,000 square feet. By subdividing contiguous parcels, Carros could build multiple new homes on the land.
More high-quality homes meant more tax revenue, which had an appeal at the municipal level: "You tear down a $50,000 home and replace it with two $350,000 homes, and your tax base is raising by a whole lot," she said.
In 2018, Carros opened the newly-branded Deacon Rental Properties, a 60-home compound a stone's throw from the university.
Besides the homes’ exterior color—cerulean blue, olive green, deep maroon, or burnt orange—the structures were nearly identical. The interiors had been pulled straight from a designer's catalog: marble countertops, trendy breakfast bars, high-end stainless-steel appliances.
Within the complex, students’ only neighbors were other students. They couldn't see or hear the outside neighborhood, and they figured the outside neighborhood couldn't see or hear them. With no one around to pester about late night music, parties could roll into the sunrise.
"We had reimagined and reinvented an area that had been on a downward trend, improved it, and brought it into marriage with the school," Carros said. "Students loved it."
It didn't take long for other local builders to note her success. Competing communities sprouted up like trees, each one-upping the last with posh furnishings, fire pits, pools, basketball courts, gyms, and clubhouses.
"It's incredibly lucrative, the market would be crazy not to respond to that," said Jeff MacIntosh, a council member for Winston-Salem's Northwest Ward, which includes the university and surrounding streets. "The developer makes a lot of money, but the folks who were previously renting in the community get squeezed out."
Residents who remained in the area are no warmer to Carros’ compound or those that have been built in her mold. Students may not be able to see those neighbors, but the neighbors say they can see and hear more traffic, noise, people. MacIntosh says that it is often these side effects that cause concern and anxiety, not the increase in density in and of itself.
Saturdays have become notoriously bad, and the six or seven weekends when the Demon Deacons play home football games are worse than the rest. One neighbor who walks through the compound after kickoff—once the kids are packed into the student section—says the streets look "like a bomb went off."
Black tarps strung between houses and trees, meant to shade the morning's festivities from the peering eyes of neighbors and police, hung limp in the breeze. Busted Solo Cups and flattened beer cans blanketed driveways and yards. Discarded shoes hang from telephone wires.
A weekend without a 911 call is a rarity, but residents say the rounds city police officers make are few and far between. Campus police lack the jurisdiction to respond to issues beyond campus-owned property, and city officers often have more pressing matters to deal with than noise complaints.
Wake Forest, for its part, has grown more cognizant of the effects their students have on the community over the past decade. The university preaches good neighborliness via an orientation program that outlines the expectations for off-campus living, but problems persist.
The university is unique among peer institutions in that off-campus residences must be approved by the Office of Residence Life and Housing. A signed contract between landlords and the university grants Wake Forest the right to nullify a lease should student-tenants be found in violation of the university's code of conduct.
"I’m not aware of any other schools [with a comparable clause]," says Julia Jackson-Newsom, the university's senior advisor for planning and partnerships. "We have more communication. More control."
As of 2015, the university began tracking neighborhood complaints related to off-campus disturbances. During that calendar year, the school received 59 allegations. By 2020–2021, that number had climbed to 105.
Wake Forest reviews every allegation. According to Associate Dean of Student Conduct Jim Settle, over 90 percent of cases are resolved internally, with the majority of outcomes being educational and preventative.
Neighborhood residents report fond memories of student apology letters, which they say turn up in seemingly increasing quantities every year. Students report less fond memories of clicking through online alcohol-education modules that exhort responsible drinking habits. Rarely are more serious disciplinary measures invoked. In the past several years, Settle says only a handful of students have had off-campus living privileges revoked.
For neighbors, the respite is always fleeting. Renters turn over every nine months. For better or worse, neighborhood relations are reset to ground zero every August.
And the leases keep coming, in ever-increasing quantities.
As the 2020s approached, Carros was running out of room. In April 2018, she sold Deacon Rental Properties to an LLC based out of Delaware for $21 million, moving on to her next "clean up area" on nearby Wakefield Drive. "A farm with a pond, a barn and a little house," she said. "We tore it down, subdivided and put in 14 fully furnished student houses."
What Carros calls cleaning up, Strupe calls "greed."
In November 2020, Carros’ new LLC, College Corner Properties, bought the home at 3830 Freds Road and the accompanying 16 acres. Shortly thereafter, Strupe and another resident showed up at her office and demanded to know her plans.
Though they weren't able to see Carros that day, Strupe could read the writing on the wall.
"The only thing we have to go on is what she's already done," Strupe says. "That's exactly what we don't want."
Earlier student housing had been built in areas without the political capital necessary to resist—neighborhoods with older and economically disadvantaged occupants, many of them Black and Latino. But Oak Crest's residents were prepared to fight.
On a spring afternoon in 2021, Stupe organized a meeting at Campus Gas, a local bar and grill and the only non-residential structure in Oak Crest. Crowded around wooden picnic tables and under ruby red umbrellas, Stupe's neighbors watched intently as he unfurled an oversized map of the university's northern boundary and surrounding streets.
Strupe says that's about when Carros’ husband arrived. "With their surveyor. Uninvited."
"If you must build here, let it blend with the neighborhood, with the look and feel of a historic district," Strupe told them.
"But the houses in the neighborhood are not historical," Carros later told The Assembly. "What occurred? Did Gettysburg come here? How can these homes be historical when the people living in them are older than the homes themselves?"
Carros wasn't present at the Campus Gas meeting, but says her husband was peppered with questions about development plans. No definitive answers were provided—they were still trying to decide what to do with the 16 acres.
The one part they were firm about was restoring the home at 3830 to its former glory.
When it was built in 1959, the house was among the most handsome in the neighborhood. The property contained a barn, barbecue pit, workshop, and party-house for entertaining business clients.
If there's anything Strupe and Carros do agree on, it's that Freds Road LLC's first order of business—renovations to 3830 in the summer of 2021—were a success.
"That house does look good," Strupe says in hindsight. "If she’d have moved in herself, we wouldn't have had a problem."
But the new residents were, instead, the four football players who went on to throw the biggest rager Oak Crest had ever seen.
At that point, Carros still hadn't started developing the other 16 acres. Nonetheless, Strupe and company took the "Mother of All Parties" in October 2021 as a foreboding sign. What might happen once this home was one of 30 student houses?
In the days after the party, Strupe called for an emergency "University Area Community Partnership" meeting. The dialogue group—which includes university administrators, members from the city police offices, Oak Crest residents, and officials at other local neighborhood organizations—was hosted by Wake Forest University and met bimonthly.
"The meetings allow us to keep lines of communication as open as possible," says Jackson-Newsom, a facilitator of the meetings.
At the emergency session in early November, Oak Crest asked the university to terminate the student-athletes’ lease, and for the home at 3830 to be removed from the university's list of approved off-campus housing. The university acted only on the former.
Settle says it's rare for a lease to be terminated and students required to return to campus, estimating less than one occurrence per year. While there are state laws that govern the enforcement of these leases, landlords have never challenged the university on their invocation of the clause.
Neighborhood residents find the university's arm's-length control clause even more distasteful. They cite the provision as a way for administrators to feign interest for their concerns by shifting the conversation to student behavior.
Bad apples are certainly part of the problem, but the underlined issue for Oak Crest residents is the university's abdication of responsibility. Wake Forest created the conditions that have made development of Freds Road imminent, and the neighbors feel they’ve been left out to dry.
"They listen to our repeated complaints, but nothing ever comes out of it," says Stephanie Koscak, professor of history at Wake Forest and Oak Crest resident since 2015.
The "no new student housing" signs residents stuck into front yards as a last-ditch protest against development of Freds Road kind of worked.
Carros says that student houses, if they’re included at all, will make up only a fraction of the swath. Oak Crest residents, with their signs, have deterred her business. "Nobody wants to live over there," she says.
Residents say their intent with the signs was never to make students feel unwelcome. "They don't say ‘no more students in Oak Crest,’" resident Dave Stith explains. "We don't mind the student housing here. We just don't want new student housing developments."
English Professor Dean Franco echoed that sentiment. In a letter to Wake Forest's student newspaper, he explained the neighborhood's concern wasn't with students, but rather with the "real estate developer who has no hesitation about ending what has been a tranquil way of life for generations of residents."
If "cheap, disposable housing, like the blight" of Carros’ fun and colorful student homes comes to Oak Crest, Franco continued, "the deer that live in the forests will move on or die … the temperature will increase, traffic will triple, [and] noise will increase."
Carros has read Franco's letter. "The deer are still coming, honey," she says. "And we don't ignore the community."
True to her word, in February 2023 Carros sat for a conversation in Stith's kitchen. In a meeting he called "friendly and open," Carros confirmed the Freds Road development, but reported that official plans had not yet been submitted to the city.
At least three possibilities were still on the table: Freds Road might become a gated community with large homes; the 16 acres could be chopped up into as many as 30 plots; the land could be rezoned to allow an apartment complex.
If broken into 30 lots, a maximum of 60 structures could be built along Freds Road.
While it's unlikely that Freds Road will turn into the student compound of Oak Crest's nightmares next year, there's real fear about what might happen if the student body across the street continues to grow.
Wake Forest's administration maintains that there are no plans to increase enrollment, but Oak Crest's residents have been around long enough to know the overall trend.
Regardless of who moves onto Freds Road, residents say development of any kind is a function of the university's expansion. "Wake Forest will never dare to lead in a way that is good for the human welfare of its local residents," Franco said, citing "the university's cynical expansion [as] betrayal of its motto: Pro Humanitate."
Carros had previously reached out to university administrators to see if they were interested in purchasing the land or creating some kind of partnership. Carros says Wake Forest hasn't shown any interest to date.
Strupe hasn't heard much from the university of late either. He retired from his role as president of Historic Oak Crest last fall, and hasn't attended any of their University Area Community Partnership meetings since.
He looks back on his time at the nonprofit's helm with a mixture of dignity and disenchantment. No matter what comes next, it's his neighborhood. He's planted here, and the roots grow deep.
The Assembly publishes deep reporting on power and place in North Carolina. They launched in February 2021 with a focus on interesting and nuanced journalism about our state. Learn more about them at theassemblync.com.
Will Zimmerman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2023 with an interdisciplinary degree in film, journalism, and creative writing. He is interested in narrative and documentary storytelling across written and visual mediums, which he has explored in both Winston-Salem and in his home state of New York.
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