Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Over the next several weeks I will be intermittently posting some of my columns from my tenure at the Western Herald, the student newspaper at Western Michigan University. Here is one of the most relevant and trenchant.

Ill-planned WMU campus leaves much to be desired

By Dale Winling
Opinion Columnist
January 28, 2004

It's time to do something about this ghost town.
As I see it, WMU's main campus has only one thing wrong with it -- it is poorly laid out with ugly buildings that offer nothing to do while you are here. Even bigger than budget problems, this is the university's chief challenge to growth and intellectual and social prosperity. Fortunately, the solution to this problem is fairly straightforward. It is so obvious, in fact, I wonder why the university has not done anything about it.

Perhaps the chief evidence of administrative neglect of the campus is the Bernhard Center. Formerly a student union in the heart of a growing university, it is now a feeding trough in our corner of the fast-food nation. Outside of offering food to gobble on the run, the Bernhard Center -- what should be the very epicenter of student communication, engagement and leisure -- offers a couple crappy arcade games and a sign saying that the bowling alley closed 2 years ago. What gives?

Almost as troubling, this university of more than 20,000 on-campus full time students is essentially devoid of pedestrian traffic after 5 p.m. There simply is no reason to stick around once class is over. The businesses that are here suffer, and the businesses that should be moving in locate instead on West Main Street, West Michigan Avenue and Stadium Drive, pretty much all west of campus. Students bolt after class, hopping into their cars and going somewhere not so lame. Those of us who seek a robust campus community curse, kick the tumbleweed from our path and huddle in solitude at the library when it is still open.

Why? The blame for campus lameness -- and accompanying student apathy and disengagement -- lies with the administration. It has supported a policy of western expansion and sprawl that represents the cutting edge of 1950s thinking. The University Club, the Arboretum, and Hunters Ridge off of West Michigan Avenue are all apartment complexes financed by the WMU Foundation and managed by a local company. WMU is no longer housing its students on campus, it is trying to move them into Oshtemo. The vaunted College of Engineering and Business, Technology, and Research Park was located on open green space -- one of the largest green spaces in Kalamazoo -- rather than redeveloping existing industrial brown fields downtown. Let us not ask why the university has fled from undergraduate education to economic development (though it has); let us ask why the university seeks to drain people and resources from the heart of the university and the central business district. Let us ask how the university hopes to become a research university -- now we surely are one in name only -- when there is no incentive, no reason to stay on campus and research and do lab work and read academic journals in the library (and there are hardly any books there anyway)?

There are a few hopeful signs. Though the old Discount Den is no more, there is a new 24-hour coffee shop down near Bruno's and the university is redesigning the east and west entrances. It's a start, but nowhere near the kind of changes this university will require to be able to match the top university towns in the state, region or nation.

The university must take the following steps if we are to have any hope of a vibrant campus:

1. Build eastward. Horace Greeley died more than 125 years ago; let us no longer abide by his famous edict, "Go West." Develop and encourage student housing east of campus -- replace and renovate the filthy and aged housing stock of the Vine neighborhood and build any new developments (including dorms) directly between campus and the central business district. This will strengthen a city/university connection, promote retail opportunities that serve both town and gown and reduce the sprawl we seem to be hell-bent upon.

2. Build a university district. Every university's got one -- except WMU. Any one who has walked down Grand River Avenue in East Lansing or State Street or South University in Ann Arbor knows what I am talking about. Places to eat, to buy clothes, to buy CDs, to drink beer, to drink coffee. It is really disheartening to have to go away from a college campus to do anything fun.

I will even tell you where to put it -- the strip of land between Solid Grounds and Kinko's on West Michigan. Orchestrate a land swap with K-College or better yet, bring them in on the project. Bulldoze those six tiny houses that are holdovers from the 1950s and have no business being there, and you have 200 meters of commercial frontage. I guarantee you franchisees, independent businesses and investors would step over their mothers to get a shop in the new hot spot. This would instantly become the busiest place on campus, would yield big profits and would also attract townie dollars -- it's even got a parking garage right next door. Better still, WMU could work out an agreement with K for the smaller school to use our athletic facilities -- it would take some coordination but would help alleviate our athletic budget woes and would get K some top-of-the-line facilities.

3. Eliminate all parking inside the main road that rings the campus except the parking garages. WMU is already way too spread out -- use these lots for our new buildings. As one campus wag noted, "WMU needs to learn they can build up and not just out." All parking should be contained in garages built outside the main ring road including some underground levels to ease the eyesore factor of parking structures. "WMU doesn't have a parking problem," Bob Beam and Bob Brown like to say, "we have a walking problem." Not so. Students will walk if they know there are no closer spots. Make sure there's plenty of parking spots with good access from the ring road, just don't put them right next to Sangren or Faunce or Schneider Halls.

4. Finally, most controversially and perhaps most important of all -- eliminate freshman parking passes. This measure would immediately make all freshmen pedestrians. Five thousand customers for local businesses on weekends. Five thousand people who do not leave Kalamazoo every weekend for someplace better. Five thousand people who are not clogging up access roads to the campus. Five thousand people who form the heart of the campus environment and contribute to the revitalization of the WMU community. It is worth the political battle and any loss of mobility for jobs would be made up for by job creation in the immediate campus vicinity.

The WMU campus, as it stands, is no good. Our planning over the last 100 years has been atrocious, and student groups and the student government fight apathy and disengagement at every turn. The time to act is now -- WMU, in the coming years of even more outrageous tuition and even greater competition between universities to attract students, must take these steps to improve its campus before we once again become a four-day-a-week commuter campus. Students spend $227 million in Kalamazoo County each year, WMU claims in the latest fact book. I ask this question of the administration -- wouldn't it be nice if they spent some of that on campus? Give us a reason.

Dale Winling, a Western Herald opinion columnist, is a graduate student from Kalamazoo studying history.


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