Many major state universities have “college town” areas right near them, with walkable neighborhoods that serve the student population. Charlottesville, Virginia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Berkeley and LA’s Westwood, California are a few well-known examples. College Park, by contrast, doesn’t have this feel. Why is that?
This isn’t a new topic of conversation around the region, but after it came up in a recent comment thread, we asked our contributors to weigh in on this.
Jeff Lemieux pointed out the single most significant factor many people point to: the surrounding roads are far too car-oriented.
A sewer runs through it. University Boulevard bounds the campus to the north as a divided highway with no bike or pedestrian access and no development potential. Route 1 is getting better but is still treated more like a suburban strip arterial then a commercial street. College Park should be a paradise for walking and biking. But it has a ways to go.
Dan Reed thinks location and the number of commuters contributes:
[This is] exacerbated by UMD’s history as a commuter school. ... Even kids who live on campus but grow up in the area frequently go back home to visit friends or family, to work, etc.
I do think this is changing as 1) Maryland’s national reputation means it draws more students from out of state and 2) more students live on campus, which means you have a bigger base to support shops and restaurants in the area, which in turn gives people more of a reason to stick around, which in turn supports more activity. I don’t know if that’s enough to support the kind of businesses that we associate with a “college town,” like the awesome College Perk coffeehouse which closed many years ago, but it’s a start.
Partap Verma also thinks College Park is improving:
College Park has always been divided into two main areas — the downtown area with restaurants and bars that’s not too far from the dorms, and the overall Rt. 1 area. In recent years the downtown has seen some new development with new apartments/retails/restaurants and actually looks pretty decent. And then you have the larger Rt. 1 area that is filled with strip malls and car dealerships that are slowly going away and being replaced by much needed apartments and hotels that serve UMD.
Commenter dcer52, on the thread that started this discussion, pointed out how an often-contentious town-gown relationship has also held back the growth of a college town area:
Here is one famous example that sums it up. When the Green Line station in College Park opened in the 1990s, the University planned to run a shuttle bus from campus to the station. However, the extension of Paint Branch Parkway was not built yet so the bus would have to run through surface streets in the City of College Park. The University offered to allow any College Park resident to ride the bus for free (not just students), but the city refused to allow the shuttle buses to ride on city streets to access the Metro station.
When the College Park Metro station opened, about six blocks from the edge of the University of Maryland campus, the University was prohibited from running a shuttle bus to the station (as was Metro and PG County The Bus). So instead students, faculty, and others had to take a shuttle bus to the Greenbelt station.
When I was a student there in the 90’s I tried to take an active role in city issues. I changed my voter registration to College Park only to find that for persons living on campus or in student housing neighborhoods, the assigned polling place was not College Park city hall (downtown and walking distance from everything) but some other building that required a drive (or cab ride) from campus. Some colleges actually have polling places for students on campus, College Park put theirs as far away from campus as possible. Message sent.
Gray Kimbrough summed up some of the major reasons for the problem:
UMD has a pretty perfect storm of:
- A nearby community that is relatively hostile to the university and its students, as others have already mentioned.
- A location near, but not really in, a fairly major city.
- A campus that is relatively suburban and spread out, in addition to having little interface with the surrounding community.
- Its large size, especially relative to its town.
- Its lack of a medical center, which can often provide a built-in need for communication between the university and the community (and all the positive results that flow from that).
Payton Chung added some context and a possible quantitative metric, Floor Area Ratio (FAR):
Some universities have successfully built their own college towns — like UIC, a postwar commuter school. That UMD hasn’t is probably a semi-conscious decision, both due to a commuter school mentality on behalf of the administration (and students) and a snobbish suburban mentality on behalf of the town (as dcer52 retells).
As Gray points out, the commuter school mentality results in a campus that isn’t all that dense, and is isolated from walkable retail. From the middle of McKeldin Mall to the nearest off-campus restaurant is about 0.4 miles away — an eight-minute walk one way, or too far to manage a roundtrip within a 15-minute break between classes. Contrast that to 0.07 miles from the middle of the Court of North Carolina (at NC State) or 0.2 miles from the middle of Polk Place (at UNC).
Local architects Ayers Saint Gross have a cool “comparing campuses” tool with figure-ground plans and statistics on many academic and medical campuses. Overall, FAR isn’t the most useful metric for something as big as an entire campus (which might include athletic fields, research farms, etc.), but UMD’s campus has an overall FAR of just 0.22. By contrast, “urban” campuses like UCLA and VCU have FARs in the 0.8-0.9 range. All FARs are not created equal, but it’s not for nothing that LEED awards points for FARs above 0.5/0.8. In my experience, few truly walkable places have FARs much below 1.0; there’s just not enough other destinations within walking distance.
Dan Reed discussed the pros and cons of the FAR metric and the issue of just where the downtown area is located relative to campus:
I like Payton’s discussion about FAR, which makes a good point about the walkability of a campus itself and its ability to contribute to the surrounding area. But I would note that a golf course takes up like half of the 1200+ acres UMD has, and the part of the campus closest to “downtown” College Park (aka South Campus) is fairly dense, walkable, and somewhat oriented to Route 1 and Knox Road where all of the bars are.
That said, South Campus is predominantly upperclassmen dorms and apartments, which is great for the bars, but sucks for anyone trying to grab students going to and from class. Most of the academic buildings are either in the middle of campus (far from Route 1) or on North Campus (very far from Route 1. When I was in architecture school we drove (!!!) to Route 1 for lunch because otherwise it was a 20 minute walk.
UMD’s been talking about East Campus for a decade now and their plans to put retail and housing and a hotel on Route 1 are good. But this discussion makes me wonder if they should also put some academic buildings there instead of cloistering them far away from the rest of town.
College Park clearly faces some obstacles to be a better college town (including disagreement among residents about whether it should be at all). It’s not the the only place where some or many of these factors apply. Our contributors also discussed other towns which are grappling with these same issues, and other universities that lack a good physical connection to their surroundings. We’ll have more of this contributor discussion, moving beyond College Park, Maryland, in an upcoming article.