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.