Friday, December 29, 2006

A College Town from Scratch

I read an interesting article a few days ago, and it goes nicely with the discussion that regular commenter Gary P. and I have been having about "new urbanism" in the comments to a post from last week. The article talks about the efforts of officials in Storrs, Connecticut--the home of UCONN--to build a "college town" around the campus, where none exists at the moment:
The University of Connecticut's main campus boasts a string of new buildings, thanks to a multibillion-dollar infusion of state cash. The student body is growing. And there are two powerhouse basketball teams that bring big-time sports to a rural corner of the state.
There's one thing, however, that UConn doesn't have: a college town.

So it has decided to help build one from scratch - complete with shops, restaurants, hundreds of apartments and even a traditional New England town green.

The project exemplifies the growing interest of colleges and universities in their surrounding communities. Many have realized that a building boom of dormitories, student centers and libraries isn't enough. Students don't want an "ivory tower" experience; they want to be part of broader communities that offer commerce, culture and cuisine.

But while many colleges are working to expand or revitalize nearby neighborhoods, this project may be unique in that it is trying to construct one anew.

[...]Most colleges, even small rural ones, have grown up around a town or spawned one, as businesses opened to keep students supplied with books, pizza, beer and coffee.

Thanks to accidents of geography, infrastructure and municipal history, that never really happened here. Even though 20,000 people attend school on campus, the tiny village of Storrs is little more than a handful of businesses in a strip mall, a post office and a dateline for stories about the basketball teams.
Read the whole thing. As I said in the dialogue with Gary, I'm a pretty big fan of the "new urbanism" concept. Here in my own neck of the woods, I think that Firewheel is a far superior alternative to the traditional enclosed mall, and places like Southlake Town Square west of the airport and Sugar Land Town Square near my parents' house (both of which feature a new City Hall, condos and a nice hotel in the mix) have done a lot to give these otherwise-faceless suburbs a sense of urban-ness, and they've also served as great gathering places that were previously missing from the local landscape.

I will concede that Gary has a point in one of his previous comments:
I read a column once on the web -- wish I would have bookmarked it -- that across the country all these new booming suburbs are so preoccupied with manufacturing histories that don't exist (with the land devlopers lined up to take money for the privilege) at the expense of ignoring or marginalizing the real histories that are there.... celebrating the illusion rather than the reality.

I liked Merry Main Street better when it really was on Main Street walking in and around all the old buildings and remembering what it looked like 50 or even 80 years ago (Scotty P's Restaurant has pics of OLD Main Street from WAY back in the day). The new place is newer and there's more room, but there's also a disturbing sameness in the shade and patterns in the brick, the uniformity of the heights and dimensions of the buildings, the sizes of the freshly-planted trees.... it's like the difference between Main Street in Anytown, USA, and Main Street at a Disney Theme Park. We spend lots of money to celebrate the sameness and homogeneity of the illusion presented by Disney while we ignore Main Streets back home.
But on the other hand, isn't it better to have a "history" that seems artificial now, but will serve as part of the actual future history of the town, than to have nothing? As I also pointed out, Frisco Square wouldn't have fit in the existing downtown, nor would Firewheel have fit in downtown Garland. Certainly, these new developments may cause a decline in the original downtowns, but it was a decline that was already well in progress before the new places were built. Rather than neglecting history, I'd call it a chance to write the first chapter in a new one.

I also said one more thing in the previous comment section:
I agree with you that there may be a certain sterility about the "new urbanism," but sometimes that's what it takes to get people out of their fenced yards and gated communtiies and actually be around other people, and that's not a bad thing.

[...]Call it an all-too-typical suburban mentality, but you can count me among those who like the urban setup without the "grit" (assuming that "grit" can be defined as not having to smell garbage, step over bodily fluids on the ground, worry about getting mugged, etc.). Does that make me shallow? I hope not. I just think that making the suburbs look more urban, while avoiding the aforementioned "grit," is the best of both worlds.
And I suppose it's a shame that, despite my affinity for new urbanism, I can't actually vote for it with my feet. The Firewheel condos under construction sure seem enticing (and if money and job situation allowed, I'd live in the Brownstones at Southlake in a New York minute) but, being a musician who needs to practice and teach at all hours of the day, I could never give up my own four walls unless I had one of these in my living room.

I don't know if anyone besides Gary and myself have an interest in this subject, but I figured it was post-worthy. Feel free to add any of your thoughts in the comments.

Heartwarming holiday story #1: A Pensacola family bought themselves some new bikes for Christmas, but they were stolen from the front yard. The couple posted a sign that reflected their disappointment, and a few days later, an anonymous benefactor left an envelope with $200 inside at their front door.

Heartwarming holiday story #2: A woman in Connecticut had a white Christmas, thanks to a loving daughter who collected Zamboni shavings from a recent hockey game and spread them all over Mom's front yard.

iCan'thandlethismuchtraffictoday: Due to an overwhelming number of people who got iPods and store gift cards, the iTunes Music Store nearly got overloaded on Monday and Tuesday. (My own iPod is still pending.)


Laurence Aurbach said...

I think you both have good points. On the one hand, old Main Streets were not ususally built all at once by a single development company, and the properties were owned by many people, each making their own decisions about what to build.

On the other hand, no old town was really "authentic" when it was brand new. Some did get built virtually overnight, but it took decades to really get to that "lived in" state. So comparing a 70 year old Main Street to a 10 year old town center development is to some degree apples and oranges.

I happen to think more variety in ownership would be a good thing for some new urbanist town centers, but I'm not sure how feasible that would be. The real estate investment system is very different today than 70 years ago. Also, new retail districts need a critical mass of shops right away to attract business, most can't wait for years while individual owners get properties built.

Kev said...

Laurence--great points, and thanks for visiting! Your site looks like someplace I'd like to visit regularly...