The future of college towns

The college town, one of America’s most appealing and unique features, grew out of the Age of Reason, and the concept of a regional, liberal-arts college nurtured by a small town has been intertwined with American history.  Today, with enrollment dropping, the small, private college seems to be going the same way as the typewriter, the newspaper and the independent bookstore. While some colleges struggle to survive, the institution of the college town lives in suspended animation, ready to support whatever form its, major employer may take.  One thing’s for sure:  the reinvention of the post-college town is coming.

Here in Central Florida, the tradition of a liberal-arts college entwined with a small or medium-sized municipality is alive and well, for the moment.  But trouble is brewing.  While private institutions in Central Florida may not advertise their funding problems, the truth is plain to see.  Rapid expansion of athletic programs, sure-fire profit centers for most schools, is underway atRollins College,  Stetson, and University of Tampa, and all are exploring other ways to reach more students, as well.

Florida’s public universities are not immune to budget problems, either.  And their response to the financial crisis says much about the future of college towns everywhere.

Reinvention of the liberal arts college itself has been a cottage industry for the last several years.  Student body diversification into “lifelong learning” (read: the lucrative retiree demographic), extensions, outreach campuses, and summer programs for primary and secondary schools has surged, as colleges try to open new markets.  Bloated administrative costs have given rise to urgent fundraising and athletic programs, while an army of poorly paid adjunct professors shoulder an increasing burden of responsibility for the actual work of teaching.  But, as Moody’s analyst Susan Fitzgerald has said about small, tuition-dependent colleges, they are in “a death spiral – this continuing downward momentum for some institutions [means] we’ll see more closures than in the past.”

The Economist magazine has compared colleges to newspapers.  If their analogy were to hold true, of the 4,700 colleges and universities in the world, “more than 700 institutions would shut their doors.”  Citing the rise of massive, open, online courses or MOOCS, the magazine suggested that the idea of a professor interacting face-to-face with students will become a luxury. Colleges seem destined to end up in the same tiresome boat as the rest of the digital world, where everything, ultimately, becomes a product on Amazon.

Uncertainty about the future has hastened the liberal arts school’s demise. In the darkest days of the recession we were told there was a STEM crisis: science, technology, engineering and mathematics were the fields that would get you a job.  People ditched their liberal arts pursuits for more practical, employable ones, swearing off the indulgent frivolity of a philosophy course for a computer programming class.  Panicking parents and students stampeded out of the gothic halls of the English department as fast as they could.

Here in Florida, to pay for a new state campus in Lakeland, the Governor gutted the operational budget of Florida’s 11 other institutions of higher education. The new campus, located on rural land adjacent to Interstate 4, is far from any sort of population center. It’s a soulless commuter school; any form of a college town to accompany it lies far, far in the future.

USF Polytechnic is being billed as a “destination campus”. Its showy new structure nearly complete, it lies naked to the Florida scrub and Interstate 4, with a few lonely stucco buildings and portable classrooms marking a kind of desperate, treeless sense of place in the hot Florida sun.  No flip-flop-shod students strumming guitars, debating the meaning of Proust or the relevance of Marx will ever be found under its oak trees or in front of its bohemian coffee shops, because there aren’t any.  Instead, there’s a harsh, asphalt parking lot and a long, hot trudge to the endpoint, another signal that one’s college years are just like a shopping trip to Wal-mart.

If the one-in-seven death rate holds true, then one of the seven college towns in Central Florida will not have a future either.  Gainesville, DeLand, Winter Park, St. Augustine, Tampa, Lakeland, and St. Petersburg are seven places with streets, residences, and businesses that each have grown up around colleges, public and private, and that enjoy a thriving sidewalk life.

Ironically, at least two of these colleges were born in another desperate time, the Great Depression.  The University of Tampa, across the Hillsborough River from downtown Tampa, started in a failed hotel when the city took it over from owner Henry Plant’s railroad empire.  Likewise, Flagler College in St. Augustine began in a resort hotel built by New York railroad magnate Henry Flagler.  The small, private, liberal-arts college was a perfect solution. A grand old structure was re-inhabited, and a struggling city was bolstered.

Towns that grew up around these places have different, more informal qualities than other towns.  In Gainesville, for example, churches, temples, student centers, and other non-profit institutions occupy prominent positions within the urban core., There’s a diversity of old houses with garage apartments, lean-tos, and enclosed porches.  Wood apartment buildings have side stairs, outdoor beer kegs, and bicycle racks.  They sit under huge, mature trees, clad in subtropical philodendron vines, and are connected by narrow dirt pathways carved independent of sidewalks.  A sense of grown-over-time pervades within and around campus, its boundaries softened by sneaker and bicycle traffic, concert posters and poetry reading notices.

Gainesville, with nearly fifty thousand students, will probably survive, but other, smaller towns may struggle.  As conversion to digital learning reduces costs, the college town may disappear.   Anonymous reviews, posted online, replace conversations in bookstores.  University Avenue may be deleted, just like yesterday’s term paper.

Our bookshelves are crowded with titles about the urban future, but in all of this furious scribbling it seems no one has noticed that sidewalks have all but emptied out in many of our cities. Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and a few more still march to the pedestrian beat.  But a fairly thorough survey of peninsular Florida yields few sidewalks with any kind of street life  —  and the few that still operate as shared, social space all belong to our college towns.

Students, with one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, still walk on sidewalks.  They shop online, too, but they still patronize businesses for the sake of the social interaction, and still have use for the physicality of the street… for a street life that seems to be endangered.

College towns, living on today in a shadow of their former bohemian selves, will be reinvented, just as education systems will.  But for now, deprived of street life, we breed a different sort of citizen and thinker than an old college town once did.  This new digital citizen will construct social space in ways yet to be foreseen.

This article first appeared in The New Geography.

When density is destructive

Brick streets, mature old oaks, and a sense of history imbue Winter Park, Florida with a sense of place that is the envy of many small cities and towns. The tony Park Avenue brings shoppers and visitors, who soak up its ambience and enjoy the street life of this quaint southern town. On the east side, bounded by blue lakes, lie gentrified historical mansions, while the west side is a neighborhood of smaller, affordable homes with multigenerational Winter Parkers. This community of little single-family homes is now endangered by developers that are gobbling up parcels two and three at a time, increasing the density threefold, and squeezing out residents in a new, “zoning for dollars” economic climate.

Brick streets, mature old oaks, and a sense of history imbue Winter Park, Florida with a sense of place that is the envy of many small cities and towns.  The tony Park Avenue brings shoppers and visitors, who soak up its ambience and enjoy the street life of this quaint southern town.  On the east side, bounded by blue lakes, lie gentrified historical mansions, while the west side is a neighborhood of smaller, affordable homes with multigenerational Winter Parkers.  This community of little single-family homes is now endangered by developers that are gobbling up parcels two and three at a time, increasing the density threefold, and squeezing out residents in a new, “zoning for dollars” economic climate.

Affluence and affordability have always maintained an uneasy truce, and the balance between them has historically been protected by cities through planning policies and an understanding that the mission of a city is to be workable for all of its residents, not just the wealthiest.  Unfortunately, this balance tilts when the density imperative drives land values up, and tips the scales in favor of half-million dollar townhomes. High density has become fashionable in Winter Park these days, as it has in many cities, and there are some benefits to this new style.  The costs?  Well, those will be counted later.

Density’s benefits look great on paper: a higher tax base, expensive new housing, walkable urbanity.  When implemented well, these can make for positive changes.  Advocates preach careful, sensitive ways to develop: don’t smash large and small buildings together; don’t mix uses on a street, and ramp up from low to high density across a gradient of a block or two.  Advocates also preach a consensus-building process to avoid neighborhood clashes over growth issues.  In places where this has happened, like Coral Gables in Miami, the story has mostly been a good one.

The west side of Winter Park, with its cottages and modest residences for families, dates back to the 1920s.  Within the neighborhood are many small churches to which residents walk on Sundays.  Playgrounds, parks, and a community center characterize the West Side’s tree-shaded streets, and its proximity to the downtown area means jobs for many of its residents.  For the last ninety years, the city has evolved around this neighborhood, and many families go back several generations.  Its diversity includes many African American families, mixing with whites. It carved out a niche in the city.

Today, the West Side is an older and less affluent neighborhood that happens to be close to a desirable address.  The West Siders have already chosen their preferred building pattern and rhythm, infilling their blocks with new homes of similar size and scale, enlarging the tax base.  They already live a walkable urban lifestyle, use mass transit, and evolve with slow and organic growth.  In short, every urbanist’s dream.

Like many cities that have a working class enclave that butts up against a newly trendy one, Winter Park has encouraged dense, mixed-use development, while nominally protecting its existing neighborhoods.  And this is where the density equation seems to fall apart.  The residents who leave the area will no longer participate in the economy of Winter Park.    The new residents of half-million-dollar townhomes probably won’t ride the bus, walk to the churches, or otherwise activate the local streets.  So a natural piece of the city is lost forever. Urbanism, for all that has been written in favor of this ideology, is diminished for the sake of density.

West Siders protested in City Hall, asking the city not to upzone their neighborhood.  While City Hall nodded to its citizens, it had already quietly allowed upzoning to take place, taking advantage of tired homeowners who decided to cash in. Half-million-dollar townhomes, which could be built in other areas, are instead being built here, to take advantage of low land values.  Parking garages and midrise apartments now cast shadows on the adjacent small houses.  Land values may rise on parcels with new townhomes and midrise apartments, but immediately next door, the remaining adjacent little one-story cottage becomes particularly undesirable.  Its land value gets depressed, with its owner’s only hope to sell off to a high-density developer.  Step by step high density becomes more and more inevitable as the only solution left.

The market forces at work in Winter Park have played out elsewhere across the country, with old neighborhoods eroding.  This time around, with density all but institutionalized as the only acceptable way to grow, the deck seems to be stacked against entrenched locals.  Cities are re-writing their development codes in favor of shiny new mid-rises and high-rises, ignoring existing residents who won’t be missed till they are gone.

When the market, an amoral institution without sentiment, threatens neighborhoods, it is the job of City Hall to provide a hedge that ensures balance and fair play.  But citizens have to shout over the money in order to be heard, so local groups like the Friends of Casa Feliz have stepped in on their side.  If “zoning for dollars” can work against this section of the city, groups fear, then no one is safe, and people are reminding City Hall of its duty as a guardian of its residents.

Density, on its own, is neither a good nor a bad thing.  It can make a city more efficient and connected, and proponents tout its reputed health benefits and contribution to a thriving social life.  When, in the process of allowing density, a city destroys the very values that it is supposed to promote, then the city ends up cannibalizing its neighborhoods for little benefit other than the one-time gain that the developers will realize from the sale of these newly built products.  Income streams are put into mortgage-holders’ pockets, and, bit by bit, one more highly localized economy disintegrates.

City halls, so obsessed with petty regulations, would do well to recall their basic functions as protectors of their residents.  If there were a “back to basics” movement for government, many ordinances written to benefit the few would be shed, and there would be a refocus of attention back to the public good.  The current infatuation with density, like many fashionable ideas, may come and go, but if a multigenerational neighborhood goes, it won’t be replaced in our lifetime.

This article first appeared in The New Geography.