Monday, May 24, 2004

All that glitters...

Sterling University, the newest student-oriented housing complex, is coming together on Drake Rd., north of Main. This complex is about 2 miles north and west of campus, and is set to open for the fall. Students should be dreading it. The latest development in sprawl housing, SU looks to be a slightly upscale version of the types of developments that have sprung up like mushrooms "around" WMU in the last 3 or 4 years. I use "around" in quotes because these developments are up to 3 miles away from campus and generally intensify west side traffic problems and the campus parking nightmare because they pretty much mandate auto ownership.

Let's look at the pluses and minuses of this project:

1. It is very near Hardings, Panera, and other W. Main retail establishments.
2. There is plenty of parking for residents.
3. It's in a pretty quiet area, adequately separated from most commercial developments.
4. It will have high speed internet and other community amenities.

1. Bad/narrow condition of Drake ensures a big traffic headache for getting to school.
2. The community amenities will probably be pretty crappy (as they generally are in such developments).
3. It's set up as a "rent your bedroom, share the community space, live in isolation" type of arrangement.

As a living experience, I'd wager Sterling will be adequate -- everyone gets their own bathroom, and the rooms are spacious. However, its relationship to the larger Kalamazoo (and Oshtemo Twp., where it is actually located) community is really crappy. There are scores of bedrooms being built at this site and the strip malls, bars and other problems part and parcel to far-flung developments won't be far behind. There are no sidewalks in this area (across street from red pin), pretty much precluding pedestrian access to everything on Main.

One of the problems is that Sterling University is a national corporation that focuses on university communities. They are based in Houston and since they are not attuned to the local communities in which they build, they do not provide the most sensitive plans for integrating their development into the community. This is evident in the Kalamazoo example, where any new bedrooms should be built EAST of campus and not WEST.

The problems of sprawl, parking, traffic, obesity, poor campus culture, and strain on city (and twp) infrastructure are only exacerbated by developments like Sterling.

What gives?

The hiatus in this blog has a two-fold cause: I've been lazy and I've been away.

I was away for a week at an architecture conference in Pennsylvania. The annual meeting of the Vernacular Architecture Forum was held in central PA, focusing on the architectural traditions of the Pennsylvania Germans. While the tours were interesting, as was staying in Harrisburg (the state's capital), for me the most interesting part was hearing Thomas Hubka's paper on working class housing 1900-1930. Hubka is an architect by training, but does substantial historical research (his Big House Little House Back House Barn is a must read for architecture and material culture historians). In this paper, he discusses the emergence of a national consensus of the detached single-family residence as the model home development. Homes of this type were developed in kits by Sears and promoted heavily in home and architecture magazines of the period. The national housing census, however, indicates that while the prescriptive literature offered a standard message, the housing that was actually built did not conform 2/3 of the time. This disconnect implies an interesting disconnect between the coalition of housing industries and actual homebuyers. Hubka's intended project will eventually include analysis of 10 cities from around the country.

Monday, May 03, 2004

More on the 2001 Student Housing Task Force:

Good ideas that were not agreed upon by the members and thus not promoted:
1. Commuter lots should be built away from campus for commuter students; a bus shuttle should provide transportation between the commuter lots and campus.
2. WMU should build more on-campus housing as its student population grows.
3. Additional areas for campus commercial businesses should be planned near campus.


1. This commuter lot is a terrific idea. It should go West of Drake Road on KL Avenue. That way, it could take advantage of the existing bus route that already serves Jefferson Commons and the other stupid housing complexes out there. This commuter lot should have a sticker that costs something like 50 to 100 dollars, making it VERY attractive for anyone who lives more than about 2 miles away. Also, because the K-Metro buses don't run on Sunday, the Commuter pass should be as good as a W sticker on Sundays (I can't remember if W stickers are enforced or not on Sundays) so people can go to the library or other campus spots without filling the meters. There HAS to be a big disparity between W stickers and the C (commuter) stickers so that people are forced to make the right decision. There also NEEDS to be good bus service (maybe even 10 minutes per bus on that route) so that it is convenient to use the commuter lot. This could cut down daily traffic by the hundreds, if not more.

2. On-campus housing has been abandoned across the US in the last 30 years, and I'm not sure why. Of course buildings cost more than they used to to build, but that hasn't stopped any other construction. I think there is still a market for affordable on-campus housing. Some services need to be consolidated (like dining halls), and WMU could even provide something like apartment life with few of the institutional services (like a dorm computer lab or library or game room) on campus. Dispense with the RAs and just have a building manager/advisor. I'd wager this is something like what the Goldsworth apartments are like as well as the Stadium Drive Apts. It would reduce pressure on the neighborhoods and increase activity on campus. Naturally following that would be...

3. Commercial business on campus. It is incredible to me how little there is to do on and near campus. I came to WMU from the University of Michigan, where literally within 2 blocks of your classes you could find a half dozen restaurants and coffee shops, 2 movie theaters, and 2 or 3 bookstores (good ones, not textbooks). Everything is out on West Main or on Westnedge or far down on West Michigan and it pisses me off. The university could be raking in dough from leases on real estate if it would only start exploiting the potential demand for campus retail services. Pretty much anything close to campus is good and busy -- Bilbo's, Rocket Star, Coffee Works, and the 2 or 3 other on- or near-campus businesses.

And make no mistake about it -- these businesses are suffering because their connectivity to campus is poor. From the library, let's say it's a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile to Rocket Star. You walk past McCracken, cross the street and pass the Henry Hall parking lot, the open Bernhard Center lawn, the parking garage, the open football field and those tiny houses, then finally you reach some more real buildings and get to Rocket Star. It's annoying and psychologically daunting to have to traverse unengaged through block after block of open space.

However, if, instead of a parking lot, you walked by an academic building, then the Bernhard Center and met a friend or two, then continued on past a row of clothing or book or music stores on your way to Rocket Star coffee shop, you would have a much more engaging, stimulating, and enjoyable walk to get coffee.

Maybe, instead of walking with our eyes on the sidewalks yapping into our cell phones at people similarly walking (or worse yet, driving) at the far corners of the campus, we might look up at the people coming in and out of those shops and smile at them or say hi. The coffee shop would certainly be better served by having some sympathetic businesses around it to attract a greater and more diverse clientele (diverse in their retail ambitions, not necessarily diverse in the ethnic sense, eg someone who wants a new jacket and something to drink, or someone who wants to buy a book and sit around and read it for an hour, or someone who just wants a sandwich).

I say again, the possibilities are manifold and -- I think -- pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about it. It is an ongoing frustration that nothing ever seems to get done about it.