Trapped in a box: University of Maryland Diamondback, 4/26/07

The county should exact eminent domain to remold the Knox Box apartments into more safe and attractive student housing

If you didn't gasp in horror when you picked up yesterday's Diamondback, you should have - a fire ripped through a Knox Box for the second time in 16 months, wreaking $30,000 in havoc and displacing 13 residents who were, quite luckily, unharmed.

Sprinklers weren't there to smolder the flames. The saving grace for the students, some of whom were asleep at the time, was a gracious passerby, who smelled the smoke and kicked on doors until everyone was awake.

One such disaster could be attributed to bad luck, but the record of Knox Box blight reveals a disturbing trend. In 2005, student David Ellis died of smoke inhalation when a fire blocked the door of his Knox Road apartment. It was later discovered his windows weren't big enough to satisfy city fire code - a violation several Knox apartments were found to share. Box landlords, including Janet Firth, who oversees the majority of the apartments, complied with city-mandated renovations after Ellis' death, but Knox Boxes are still unnervingly unsafe. Not all the apartments have appropriate windows, and despite consistent requests from both the city and the county, most lack sprinklers.

It is tempting to champion sprinklers and inspections as the end-all solution, but this overlooks the fundamental problem: The 50-year-old apartments are more than beyond reasonable repair. Not only is it simply impractical to install costly sprinkler systems that could threaten the apartments' infrastructure itself, but the apartments are a poor match for the university's purpose. Besides being aesthetic eyesores that detract from our seriousness and attractiveness as a flagship institution, the Knox Boxes are an unwise use of a space that could house thousands of students.

It is time for the county to stop pushing for fruitless repairs and start looking at real solutions. A blessing called eminent domain is the county's golden ticket to both cooling the housing crisis and revamping the apartments. In June 2005, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that local governments can force property owners to give up their property to allow for private development that would benefit the public. The county could exact this domain to push out the less-prominent Knox Box owners and engage in a partnership with Firth to remold the Boxes into high-rise student apartments that are aesthetically pleasing, economically practical and, most importantly, safe.

Cooperating with one developer would not only lessen the cost of the development and avoid costly legal battles; it would allow for more uniform safety inspections. And the smart construction of more student housing could give this house-crunched campus a roof over its head while keeping students out of a student-hostile city. Now that's something we could all live with (and in).

University of Maryland Diamondback: http://media.www.diamondbackonline.com