I’ve lived near a lot of schools in my life. Growing up on the Main Line I could walk to (at least?) five institutions of high learning, I went to school in Georgetown, and just a few weeks ago I’ve moved across the street from Gallaudet University in DC. And I’ve noticed a common thread among the schools: they make horrible land use decisions.
I was inspired to write this by this post in Greater Greater Washington by Ken Archer about the housing situation at Georgetown, which is pretty bad. Though the university houses a lot of its students, it’s not great and a lot of people are forced out into the surrounding neighborhoods of Burleith and West Georgetown. The prices range from about $900/bedroom/month at the low end in Burleith to over $2000/bedroom/month in West Georgetown, and the campus housing could get as pricey as $2000/room/month without dedicated kitchens and bathrooms (!) for freshmen sharing dorms. Much of this is no doubt due to the neighbors’ refusal to allow affordable, dense housing in their communities for students, but at least half of the problem is universities simply making poor use of their existing space.
GGW post does a good job of describing Georgetown’s failures. There is no shortage of short, architecturally-insignificant buildings on Georgetown’s campus that could be densified, and yet the university doesn’t take advantage of it. My first choices for infill projects would be New South and the awful concrete plaza next to Harbin, and I’m not sure many people would complain if the brutalist buildings were razed and replaced with something glassy and denser. And unlike, say, Villanova, there is no existing constituency of student drivers to cater to, so that can’t be it.
And it’s not just Georgetown. In fact, likely due to the extreme NIMBYness of its neighbors, sky-high housing prices, and being hemmed in geographically, Georgetown has made far better use of its property than many others. Villanova Univeristy is probably the biggest offender I know of – despite having near-exclusive access to three stations on two well-traveled train lines (!!), it has built its campus as if it were in the middle of Wyoming. While you can blame anything built before 1990 on the times, things built more recently are harder to justify. I don’t recall any of the new buildings exceeding four stories, and they are invariably surrounded by large amounts of parking and grass. The campus is quite large and difficult to get around, and so many students will take the campus shuttle in the winter to go from one on-campus location to another. The university runs shuttles that parallel and duplicate frequent rail lines, segregating the students from the (extremely wealthy and safe!) neighborhoods. The students sense the planning decisions and choose to live accordingly: they all drive. They drive to the grocery story, they drive to class, they drive to bars, and they drive to their friends’ houses. I believe the frat houses were actually pushed out of the transit-heavy Main Line entirely, out to King of Prussia, leaving people no choice but to drive home after a night of drinking. I once had a friend who lived in a house with four other girls, and though they could see the light rail station from their window that took them straight onto Villanova’s campus, they all brought their cars and they all drove everywhere, in an area that has better rail coverage than parts of Manhattan.
Gallaudet here in NE DC is also pretty bad. The area was not always the nicest, but now with the coming of the Metro (they have a stop named after them!) and the much more recent yuppification of nearby NoMa and H Street, they’ve fallen way behind and become a real drag on the landscape. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they’re a worse for the area than even the blighted industrial area between the campus and the railroad tracks, where at least you know that the NoMa developers are salivating with thoughts of soon turning the area into glassy condos with ground-level retail. The university has what look like some nice buildings, but they’re behind a tall fence and set back on a huge lawn. Some colleges make great use of their lawns (Georgetown’s and Penn’s are packed when it’s nice out), but this ain’t one of them. Florida Ave. was at some point widened into a six-lane highway, and the school looks like it’s too car-oriented now for people to ever be lounging around on the grass.
I should add that there are some schools that have done urbanism very well. The University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia is the textbook example of a school has taking the lead by both developing its own campus and encouraging density and new construction in the surrounding neighborhoods (I really should know more about this than I do). Drexel, which is just down the street from Penn, has hired John Frey as its president and is seeking to emulate Penn’s success on its campus (Frey used to work as a consultant for Penn was Penn President Judith Rodin’s right-hand man), and though Drexel isn’t quite there, it’s doing quite well at both filling in its own campus as well as improving the surrounding neighborhoods, which is no small thing given the area.
Institutional land holders are interesting creatures. On the one hand, they often have the power to single-handedly (*cough*Columbia*cough*) make wide-reaching land use decisions – the ways in which the Bryn Mawr Hospital shapes my hometown’s land use policy deserve a blog of their own. But on the other hand, they rarely use these powers for good. I have a feeling that universities are just generally inept and inefficient, maybe due to systemic failures of competition in higher education, maybe due to not having to pay taxes. Like I said, student housing even on campus is ridiculously expensive, despite the fact that the land has often been owned by the schools for decades, if not centuries, and they don’t have to pay taxes. (My dad, a professor at Penn without any special knowledge of this, theorizes that Penn might extract value from its centuries-old dorms by mortgaging the property and using the money to pay general expenses, but any other guesses as to where universities waste all this dorm rent are welcome.) It’s an interesting topic, and one that’s been on my mind for a while now, so I’m glad I finally put my thoughts into words.
John Cain saysJanuary 19, 2011 at 6:23 am
As a Hoya alum, I gotta say this is spot on. When they built the Southwest Quad, I couldn’t believe they only put one store in. And I still have to listen to people defend the Harbin patio, even though no one ever uses it. I wonder how much historical preservation plays into this, though. I doubt anyone could knock down any of the townhouses within a few blocks of the front gates, and if the preservationists wanted to add the Third Church of Christ, Scientist to the list, doesn’t that bode poorly for the prospect of ever ridding ourselves of Lauinger Eyesore…er, Library?
John Cain saysJanuary 19, 2011 at 6:29 am
Ok, I just checked, and any changes to any exterior on campus is subject to review by the Old Georgetown Board. Some more info here
Danielnairn saysJanuary 19, 2011 at 1:40 pm
I hear you on this. It’s possible that the paradigm is shifting, but that it just takes a long time for large institutions to move, especially when we’re talking about buildings and infrastructure with a very long useful life. My familiarity is with the University of Virginia, which has in recent years emphasized growing inwardly and enhancing the pedestrian experience. They’ve even set a goal to reduce drive alone staff commutes from 78% to 60% in the next few years through a variety of policies. But, geez, some of the stuff built in the 90’s. One research park off the highway was built around something resembling an outsized version of Jefferson’s lawn lined with buildings, and surrounded by a massive parking lot. It’s cut off from the rest of campus, except for a little shuttle every so often. Virtually nobody uses this open space, and redesigning the whole thing has been a perennial architecture student project.
HLS saysJanuary 19, 2011 at 9:26 pm
John Frey was a lot more than a consultant at Penn. He had a lot of titles at one time or another, but he was certainly a vice president, and more important, the right-hand person of Judith Rodin, Penn’s president of that epoch. And there was no doubt that Frey was the mover in a wide variety of building, re-building, and re-“styling” the Penn campus making it, yes, much more urban. Too much of it was 60s style, big buildings with their “backs” to Walnut Street, which was nothing but an urban highway with cheap parking lots. Big props to for subsidies for folks buying in adjacent West Philadelphia / University City, where Penn’s exportation of undergraduates had contributed to the destruction of whatever neighborhoods had once been there. All this did a lot for Penn — no doubt about it — but it seemed as though Rodin wanted Frey to follow her as president. This was a bit curious. In spite of his land development chops, he was a bit short on academic credentials; but he has now picked up some “cred,” street or otherwise as a university president at F&M and now Drexel. Just the right guy at F&M to negotiate a “win/win” with the folks ripping off the Franklin & Marshall “mark” on sweat clothes throughout Europe.
All this did a
Benjamin Hemric saysJanuary 20, 2011 at 2:00 am
I am not familiar with the universities you discuss, but here are some comments based on those that I am familiar with:
1) Why do universities (at least in the U.S.) generally seem to develop their land in an anti-urban way? It seems to me that one reason is that we in the U.S. think of universities as ideally being sub-urban in the first place (e.g., possessing a quadrangle, etc.) That’s the way a university “should” be if it is “really” a university. That’s the model. Genuinely urban colleges and universities seem kind of strange.
2) Most Americans (including most university administrators and benefactors) have a poor conception of what good urbanism is. One example is the current president of Columbia University. About three years ago, I believe, I was at an Municipal Art Society “Jane Jacobs” event that he spoke at (moderated by Judith Rodin) and he said, more or less, that Columbia needed to gain control of each and every property on its redevelopment site (although it already owned almost all the property on the site) in order to create good urbanism — which is, many would argue (including Jane Jacobs), the opposite of good urbanism.
3) It seems to me that universities, because they are not “exactly” businesses (and thus are somewhat insulated from the bottom line by benefactors, etc.) are particularly prone to fads in architecture and urbanism. In effect, philanthropy makes architectural craziness and anti-urbanism practical.
4) If I’m understanding her correctly, one theory Jane Jacobs had about why universities are often on the “bad” side or urban development is that they often need public approval for their actions and thus need to cater to the powers that be (who have their own bad ideas about good urbanism). Jacobs mentioned this, if I remember correctly, in one of her later interviews when talking about NYU’s failure to oppose Robert Moses’ plans for Washington Square Park. But I would argue that in addition to this many administrators, professors etc. likely agreed with Moses in the first place.
An interesting wrinkle to this theory is NYU’s current plans for expansion in Greenwich Village which seems to be anti-urban precisely because NYU is trying to get the approval of community groups and local politicians who have their own bad ideas about urbanism.
4) Another Jane Jacobs-related theory with regard to this issue is the following: especially as a university gets larger, the needs of a university will likely be in conflict with good urbanism. I base this on Jacobs’ observations (in “Economy of Cities,” if I remember correctly) (a) that sometimes activities and organizations that have started out in cities grow too large to be good for cities and (b) that, for their own purposes, they don’t really need to be in cities anyway (cities get in their way).
5) It seemed to me that Judith Rodin seem to me to say something along these lines in her comments at the MAS event. If I remember correctly, she said something like, “It’s good for the university to be a positive force, but at some point you also have to remember that your main job is to lead the university and not to take care of the neighborhood.”
6) By the way, Ms. Rodin wrote a book (I haven’t read it, though) about her experiences at the University of Pennsylvania. For those who are interested it’s called “The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets (The City in the Twenty-First Century).”
Wednesday, January 19, 2011, 9:00 p.m.
Adam saysJanuary 20, 2011 at 8:45 am
Good point on our image of a university. The idea of the idealized Cambridge campus, adjacent to the town, with separated colleges and large sporting fields surrounding is a persuasive one. The city university with concentrations of classrooms in certain parts of a particular district, but without a large set aside campus, which is how a lot of historical unis developed, could do with an image boost. I am surprised NY universities do not emulate it more explicitly.
Anonymous saysJanuary 20, 2011 at 10:54 pm
Same reason that hospitals typically are–because they are too focused on what they see as their “core business”:
Alon Levy saysJanuary 21, 2011 at 11:58 pm
Columbia is emulating the city university image: it specifically said that it will not turn the Manhattanville expansion into a closed campus the way it did its main campus.
Stephen saysJanuary 22, 2011 at 12:19 am
To some extent Columbia is – I certainly don’t get the impression that they want to duplicate their main campus – but in some ways you simply can’t be a “city university” when you have the power of eminent domain. One of the nice things about Penn is that while they obviously have a large contiguous core with a traditional campus walk, towards the edges it kind of becomes diluted with privately-owned property in a way that I think really benefits both the neighborhood and, ultimately, the university.
David Sucher saysJanuary 23, 2011 at 11:28 pm
It’s not just universities but all non-profit institutions.
Consider the wretched (not design as much as management) 54th Street side of MOMA.
Lauren Lee saysJanuary 25, 2011 at 12:21 am
Tragedy of the Commons.