Do You Need a New Campus Master Plan?

Few administrators these days would drive across the country (or even the city in some cases) without consulting a map. Granted, some merely glance at it to confirm what they already know. Others highlight the interstates they’ll travel. Some pull together detailed street directions to the best gas stations, hotels and tourist attractions along the major thoroughfares. But for any purpose -- as the Defense Department will concur -- the only good map is an updated one.

The analogy mirrors campus master plans. As a rule of thumb, administrators should revisit these treasure maps every five to 10 years (few are written to predict more than 15 years). The ideal blueprints are in a constant state of flux. In fact, architects often describe campus plans in rather colorful phrases, hoping to etch that point in stone: "a living, breathing document," "a snapshot in time," and a "decision-making tool."

But are they talking to you? "Many times one specific item or issue drives a campus to seek a new master plan," says Paul Hollenbeck, principal architect at The Collaborative, Inc., in Toledo, Ohio. "It’s a big clue when officials are uncomfortable with making a decision because the minute they start talking about that, they realize its other implications." Moreover, that one item doesn’t always appear as an earth-shaker. David Minnigan, an architect with Nashville-based Earl Swensson Associates, claims he’s seen larger campuses revise their plans on the impetus of a trivial sewer line placement. Whatever drives the new plan is perfectly legitimate, he adds, as long as the finished campus plan includes that element.

After all, campus master planning encompasses building placement, vehicular and pedestrian traffic patterns, architectural vocabulary, lighting, signage, landscaping, environmental issues, utilities, recreational space, real estate opportunities, renovations, retrofits and maintenance - just to mention the campus portion of the equation. Student culture, population and diversity also play a role, as do the board of trustees’ and alumni donors’ visions. In the end, it’s akin to assembling a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

As all good puzzlers advise, the best way to begin is to turn the picture pieces facing up on the table. No matter your institution’s size or how many previous plans under your belt, it’s best to heed these guidelines.

1. Choose an architectural firm with which you develop a chemistry quickly. The goal is consensus across diverse demographics. Drill candidates on how they gather input, weigh opinions and handle disagreements.

2. Negotiate price from the get-go. "If you don’t have a clear understanding of the budget, you don’t know where you’re going. Then neither party is clear as to what end result they want," points out Robert Galecke, vice president of operations at the University of Dallas (UD) in Texas.

3. Realize that campus plans aren’t inexpensive propositions. Thanks to the vast variables, expect architects to hedge about pricing – Hollenbeck alone bravely gives a ballpark range of $25,000 to $50,000 for a smaller campus. However, you can save money by stating your goals specifically at that first administrator-architect meeting.

4. Insist on opinions, and the more the merrier. Inventory available buildings and land. Make wish lists. But always circle back to open forums that solicit feedback from those who will raise this plan’s offspring. "Just be sure you’re focused on general uses, and talk long term," says Patti Miller, campus planning director at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro. "If you fall into the trap of letting the discussions become too detailed, people run to you in six months wanting to know when you’re breaking ground on their building."

5. Time estimates range from six to 10 months for a complete set of drawings, although architects say they’ve created partial plans (infrastructure only, for instance) in six weeks. Don’t strive to be that exception. "It is and should be very time consuming," says Ronald Fautz, the vice-president for institutional advancement at Defiance College in Ohio. "Too often we believe the consultant is the expert and accept what they provide. You start out in trouble if you think that way with a campus plan," he warns.

6. Finally, understand that, while a campus master plan can anticipate long-range needs, enhance the quality of academic life, support the academic mission and unite strategic thinking, it’s not the miracle worker. Don’t expect this project to set academic priorities, provide specific answers to specific building questions or autonomously make decisions. Those tasks continue to fall in human laps.

Here’s a look at how three administrators pulled this all together the second time around.

Defiance College

Many things could have set Defiance College’s campus master plan into motion. For starters, a new president in 1994 ushered in a change in strategic thinking toward academic focus, which would grow the student population from 900 to 1,200 over 10 years and shift that mix from commuter to residential. Housing naturally triggers concerns about the existing physical plant and possible new dormitories. As for parking, however, even residents insist on bringing their wheels in the 21st century. "If you build parking lots anywhere, you end up with spaces no one will use because they can’t get to their destination easily after they turn off the motor," Fautz says.

Yet none of these apparent circumstances triggered the call to Hollenbeck at The Collaborative. As he tells the story, it was a donor’s check for tennis courts that served up the college’s new master plan. The campus plan Defiance’s top brass consulted stretched back to the days when the institution was gearing up for a capital campaign to build a new library and spruce up the football and track complex. The papers referred only to those projects, not the campus as a whole.

Naturally, a host of situations flew out of Pandora’s box when officials peered closely. Physically, the college had created a central campus and a north campus close in proximity, but with private properties and a church it didn’t own jammed between. As a result, the campus had no social hub and no front door. Thankfully, administrators had occasionally grabbed the chance to purchase a private home for sale if it lay on a border. "It depended on our financial circumstances and the value of these properties," Fautz explains. "But, with limited resources, we realized we ought to plan these real estate purchases to fill a strategy, not a whim."

Then, too, Defiance College claims a tragic history for losing facilities to flames. Five buildings in several decades were burned to rubble, and the replacement bricks went up in knee-jerk style. Consequently, the campus offers sidewalks that lead nowhere - add paths to match modern pedestrian patterns to the wish list. Nor did the campus boast any two signs alike in style or logo.

Hollenbeck didn’t raise an eyebrow at the findings. "Defiance is not unusual; a number of small colleges went through less-than-ideal years and now are experiencing an increased enrollment," he says. For the input-gathering stage, The Collaborative and Defiance gathered a task group representing the board of trustees, faculty, staff and community leaders to contribute their two cents. At these public meetings, the architect posted a bedsheet drawing of the master plan that divided this proposed rough draft into 40 components. Each person in the room then placed stickers on the components he or she considered most important.

The core group - Defiance’s president, chief financial officer and vice presidents - took responsibility for passing a final decision to the board of trustees for a vote. "Part of the danger of too much input is building expectations that won’t be met," Hollenbeck warns. This campus master plan was approved in early 1997, ironically in time to save the day when the student union building burned in July. The new replacement, which now provides a front door to the campus thanks to the plan’s input, becomes a reality at the end of this summer.

Likewise, the college has investigated trading those rash property purchases on its outskirts for real estate closer to the heart. And a women’s softball diamond joins the tennis courts. "Turns out that where officials agreed to put these tennis courts would have destroyed other goals," Fautz says. "We envisioned unifying the two campus parts with them, which would have interrupted smooth traffic patterns down the road."

University of Dallas

"I’m a businessman, and we’re selling a product," says Robert Galecke, UD’s point person on its campus plan. "We compete against the Harvards, Rices, Notre Dames. How will we win in this cut-throat market as students, alumni and donors jump on the Internet to decide where to go to school?"

That familiar question sparked UD’s campus revitalization fever as its monsignor took the president’s helm last fall following several years of interim practice. The new year, 1999, promised to be ripe for action - on its 42nd birthday, this nationally significant Catholic dame needed reconstructive and beauty surgery. Galecke dug through the coffers searching for funds to pay for a number of deferred maintenance and infrastructure upgrades (read: high-voltage air-conditioning systems, fiber optics, sewer and water lines) to support his boss’s growth plans. "We knew we’d better take a longer view because those are expensive projects. Once you bury the money - no pun intended - in the ground, you never see it again," Galecke points out.

The closetful of existing plans they presented to Craig S. Reynolds, AIA, a principal at Brown Reynolds Watford Architects in Dallas, reflected a different era - one when planners trotted off to mull over their personal ideals rather than the university’s character, then presented them with a flourish and velvet bow. "It was a bit grand and not as realistic as you need on limited financial capital," Galecke says politely.

Reynolds began with the modern research approach. With Galecke’s guidance, the firm opened talks with trustees, faculty, students, contributors - and kept all groups up-to-speed throughout the process via mailings. "We don’t necessarily ask for a vote of every item, but we try to keep the input at the front end rather than hand them a finished package," Reynolds says. The planning team did, however, bring a preliminary sketch to these meetings to give participants a starting point, an approach that saved time.

The plan’s challenges were unique: Two major interstates border the campus, creating nonnegotiable boundaries. Second, the student population boasts as many graduate students as undergrads - a segment that typically drives its cars into campus at the same evening hours the athletic events begin. In Texas, they call that a traffic snarl, one they don’t want to interfere with the friendly pedestrian esplanade ribboning through the center of campus. Texans also take issue with the notion that their state is as flat as a pancake, and point to the University of Dallas as an example. It owns some of the highest topography in Dallas County, and no one wanted to disrupt that rolling vista.

Additionally, it sits in a 50-mile by 10-mile rectangular phenomenon known as a slow-moving earthquake. "I cannot explain that scientifically or engineeringwise but, in some areas, the ground has moved up two to four feet in the last 15 years," Galecke says. Nor do buildings move at the same dynamics as the ground, so all construction plans need to protect the infrastructure pipes from being crushed under the earth through time. Reynold’s plan provided the foundation to begin the underground rescues.

"I look at it as major surgery: We cleaned out the veins to the heart to create better passageways to our system," Galecke describes. "Then we sewed the campus back together. We’re now in the final stage of healing the stitches. In other words, the grass is growing again!" The next step is cosmetic as administrators consult the plan for architectural suggestions to update and renovate the buildings’ Texas vernacular aesthetics. The esplanade will be expanded along the prominent "North Ridge," leading growth toward Highway 114. A major boulevard will connect UD with that same highway, bringing the university more visibility.

Middle Tennessee State University

Things rocked for MTSU when it rolled out its new campus master plan in 1991. From that point, the rapidly expanding campus received a capital construction infusion totaling more than $200 million. Enroll-ments jumped from slightly more than 13,000 students in 1988 to 17,383 in 1993 and 18,432 in 1998 - a 40 percent 10-year increase, six percent five-year increase. The 500-acre campus and its 115 buildings reeled under the onslaught.

"A campus is no less complex than a small city," says Duane Stucky, the university’s vice-president for finance and administration. And like its civic counterpart, the campus needed to stay tuned to where it places parks and recreation, light industrial zones, residential housing and work spaces. But unlike UD’s Galecke, Stucky stared at plans in the last stages of rigor mortis - too stiff to provide the flexibility their growth craved. MTSU officials decided to overhaul their plans twice in the same decade, searching for potential future building sites whose designed activities could be left up in the air.

The person to help with the problem was already knee-deep in blueprints on campus, and noticing the same trends: Earl Swensson’s Minnigan had landed the contract to build a new business facility. Every day he watched the walls of a new library go up near the business facility, creating a synergy between the old and new campus structures. In his opinion, it also held potential for an unattractive campus sprawl, so he fiddled with the master plan. "We were turning over all the pieces of the puzzle and fitting our pieces together, but I also asked, ‘What happens next?’ That’s sometimes hard for everybody to swallow because it looks as if I’m trying to increase the scope of my contract," he admits. "But I was really trying to anticipate growth beyond the plan’s scope.

"Now that didn’t mean we would completely wipe out the campus’s character, but we realized that the master plan didn’t address everything it should have," he adds. Minnigan’s proposals used the excellent utility grids from the ’91 version to launch traffic flow options. It crowns a new science building as the kingpin between the old and new campus to bridge the growing architectural gap, and earmarks for destruction some older buildings thrown up in the past (simply because utilities reached that unused spot of ground) to provide open and green space. More importantly, it doesn’t cap off the future traffic corridor. "If you terminate an axis with a building in a master plan, you need to prepare for what happens on the other side of that structure," Minnigan grins. "The back of a building today can start the next quadrangle tomorrow. Master planning anticipates those edges."

MTSU officials know they risked inconsistency -- not to mention precious funds -- when they chose a second architectural firm to drive a vision within the same decade. According to Stucky, his university came out a winner. "Don’t think small by trying to save money on planning," he sighs. "It’s the most important investment you make."

Julie Sturgeon is a Greenwood, Ind.-based freelance writer with experience in higher education issues.

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