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Living and Learning

Mixed-use development is becoming popular on college campuses to enrich and add amenities to student life

By Coleman Wood

College campuses across the nation are changing before our eyes. Whereas the past saw specific academic programs, administrative offices and residential housing confined to separate parts of campus, the school of tomorrow is blurring the lines between living and learning space. Today, a student housing project can also contain advisors’ offices, classrooms, health clinics and even ground-floor retail space. The reasons for this are varied.

“You’re seeing two different forces at work,” says Eric Brock, director of housing and the mixed-use studio with Lord, Aeck & Sargent. “One is external and one is internal. The external has more to do with the fact that residence halls are often being pushed into environments that require or strongly encourage an active ground-level use other than residential. At the same time, the universities are looking to enhance the learning experience by creating these more interactive environments that allow for more than a single use of at typical residence hall.”

Many campuses, especially those in urban locations, are running out of available land to develop. At the same time, some schools are expressing the desire to clean up their edges, where the campus ends and the surrounding city begins. Mixed-used projects can accomplish both goals. Space is conserved because the same building has multiple school uses. In addition, a transition between campus and town can be created through the multiple uses, such as ground-floor retail space. Schools are also looking at mixed-use, especially live-learn communities from a more practical angle.

“[Students] have hundreds of hours spent outside of the classroom, and that is valuable time that we can use to continue the education and overall development of the student,” says David Braden, vice president of management services for Education Realty Trust.

But maximizing learning time is not the only way a mixed-used project an benefit the student. Schools constantly seek new ways to foster a greater sense of community, and keeping more of the student body on campus longer is a good way to do this.

“There was a trend in planning in the 20th century toward segregating uses. Cities did the same thing. We’ll live over here and work over there, and we did that for a while,” says Jackson Kane, a student housing specialist with Lord, Aeck & Sargent. “There were some downsides, and I think one downside has to do with community. One of the principle arguments for student housing on campus is that you’re helping to facilitate relationships.”

Students are not the only ones who benefit from mixed-use housing projects. Universities, always mindful of their bottom lines, especially in a struggling economy, have turned to public-private partnerships as a way to spread out the cost of new development. In some cases, the university’s foundation puts up the money for the project. In other cases, a private developer signs a ground lease and develops the project out of its own pocket. Either way, many of the projects that result from these partnerships are being constructed as mixed-use buildings as a way for the school to get more bang for its buck.

“These projects can be used to achieve multiple institutional initiatives, and they can be financed through structures that preserve a university’s borrowing capacity,” says Mark Schundler, associate vice president of investments for Campus Apartments. “They are just another example of universities becoming increasingly business-savvy, as they are asked to do more with less.”

In Pennsylvania, Campus Apartments is developing a multi-phase project for Shippensburg University that will, among other things, provide a new home for the school’s Honors College. The $63 million first phase of the project will also include 900 beds of housing and a 13,000-square-foot wellness center.

As schools embrace sustainability with the buildings they construct, it is also becoming apparent that creating a more compact, walkable campus can also promote sustainability, in that fewer automobiles are on campus to begin with.
“I’m a firm believer in mixed-use on campus and at the campus edges…I think it’s a community that is not only greener but probably promotes more out-of-the-classroom learning than a zoning mentality that spreads and isolates dormitories from the center,” says Stan Eckstut, a principal with New York City-based architecture firm Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn.

Eckstut adds that this type of campus utilizes existing infrastructure, rather than having to build new infrastructure farther from the campus core. It also means more buildings are being used more hours of the day, which cuts down on the energy wasted in lights and climate control. To Eckstut, the goals of creating a community and making campus sustainable are not mutually exclusive.

“If we can shift away from the buildings as the object, and make more of the campus core and the neighborhoods the objective, then we see buildings as a means of building a campus environment,” Eckstut says.

Projects today are taking a variety of creative approaches to additional uses to place in student housing. One of the more popular approaches places the basic academic and administrative services students need in the same buildings in which they live.

“[Schools] are bringing their services to the students as opposed to making the students search them out,” says EDR’s Braden.

The developer has a history of combining uses in student housing. At California State University-San Marcos, EDR developed the school’s first privatized housing. The facility contains 623 beds. It also features a 7,000-square-foot community building that provides educational amenities as well as a classroom. EDR also developed several projects at the University of Louisville in which student housing is combined with recreational amenities such as swimming pools, volleyball courts and fitness centers as well as educational amenities such as classrooms, study rooms and business centers.

Michigan State is also looking at new ways to provide services to students with its new housing initiative. Spartan Neighborhoods brings services such as academic advising, career services and even health clinics into the school’s residence halls.

The creation of live-learn communities can also help break down the scale of the university, especially larger, state-sponsored institutions that can make new students feel lost in the crowd. Having a small group of people a student interacts with frequently can help with the transition to university life. Having a group of students with similar academic interests in the same area also makes it easier for educators.

“You are able to do more intentional programming to certain curriculum and fields of interest,” Braden says.

All of the changes in the way students interact with the institution and each other while on campus has one goal—to enhance the educational experience. What students need changes as time goes on, and school officials keep a close eye on trends in the industry to make sure they do not get left behind. To current students, who spend more and more of their study and social time in places other than the classroom and their residences, creating thriving, active environment is what is important right now.

“When you create an environment where people want to be, there is a certain practicality in doing that, and it’s been proven that having a mix of uses, a richer program, if you will, is a component in creating environments where people want to be,” Brock says.

Student Housing Business, November/December 2010

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