Friday, December 25, 2009

Gowns rewrite the town—twice over.

A casual scan across most urban campuses reveals that they have been building increasingly densely to accommodate new growth, after several decades of building at a lower density than the at their original, historic core. More often than not, they have no other choice. Suffering a scarcity of available land but benefiting from a captive clientele of student pedestrians, the campus planners and leadership must build upward on former parking lots or grassy corners. Otherwise, facilities planners often recommend purchasing homes in the adjacent neighborhood, so that the schools can claim them as administrative offices if they don’t bulldoze them altogether.

Some campuses have been widely constrained by the surrounding city for as long as anyone can remember, such as Harvard University and its heavily built-up surroundings of Cambridge, one of the most densely populated cities in the country (and almost definitely tops for densely populated suburbs). In this example, the venerable old academic buildings rest behind the gate along the right side of the principal artery Massachusetts Avenue while downtown commercial buildings of Cambridge’s Harvard Square sit along the left.

This next photo, taken at the dead center of the urban plaza Harvard Square, demonstrates how the public space has become a vertex of activity generated largely from three powerful forces.

The most obvious indicators are the brick Harvard buildings which comprise the background, but I am also standing at the heart of downtown Cambridge, where the cluster of buildings hosts both university administration and a variety of other prominent companies on their upper levels. Meanwhile, immediately to the right of this photo is the entrance to the Harvard Square T stop, with one of the highest average daily commuter traffic levels in the entire Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s rail network. The photo below more clearly reveals the centrality of the subway stop at this prominent urban node.

Cambridge’s densely commercial downtown has stymied Harvard’s ability to grow to the south of its campus core (the original Harvard Yard), so the majority of the university’s newer buildings trail northward, which is clearly visible to a pedestrian walking across campus from the remarkable shift in architecture. A third “phase” in the university’s development is largely discontiguous from the old and new campus: a few blocks south of Harvard Square sits the Kennedy School of Government and numerous university residential halls. From there, the university’s development pattern played leapfrog again: just south across the Charles River sits the Allston campus, which is currently home to the Business School and the majority of the athletic and sporting facilities. As sizable as this portion of the campus is, the Allston portion of Harvard is only poised to grow over the ensuing decades: the University has long been land banking various parcels in this old Boston neighborhood, and eventually the Allston campus, based on a carefully articulated planning process, will burgeon into the new life sciences hub for the school. (Recent news reveals that, in the face of the financial turmoil, the University has indefinitely suspended its prior plans for the Allston expansion indefinitely.)

Harvard and Cambridge share an antecedent that is quintessentially Northeastern—the majority of their conception predates the radical shifts in urban form precipitated by 20th century innovations. Other parts of the country have adopted a completely different approach, with development patterns that largely reflect their respective population growth trends. The southern boomburg of Nashville and its preeminent Vanderbilt University exemplify this trend, which could hardly be more different from the physical form of Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Vanderbilt University’s history is the unusual level of disassociation with the person after whom it was named, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Distant relative and Methodist Bishop Holland N. McTyeire of Nashville stayed with the Commodore while recovering from surgery in New York; he was able to persuade the 79-year-old rail magnate to endow and build a new university in the South that would “contribute to strengthening the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country.” McTyeire chose the site and supervised the construction of buildings, but Vanderbilt himself never saw it. He never visited Nashville, dying four years after the dedication, without knowing that his only major act of philanthropy would even be named after him.

Looking at the campus today, it takes no stretch of the imagination to surmise that it was largely conceived in a vacuum, judging from the striking contrast in physical form between the campus and the surrounding area—or, for that matter, the contrast between “the Vanderbilt community” and “the Harvard community”. The layout of the buildings themselves fits into the less rigidly formalistic design popular among many universities founded in the 19th century, with an almost consistent tree canopy, the biodiversity of which earned Vanderbilt campus classification as a national arboretum.

(I contrasted Vanderbilt’s campus with the neighboring Peabody campus in greater detail during an earlier blog post.)

What does the area immediately surrounding the campus look like? It’s not the outer suburbs, but it’s also clearly not quite the city center; downtown Nashville is a mile to the northeast. But it’s also not a particularly residential neighborhood, no does it meet conventional standards of older urban development. The streets which comprise the perimeter of the original Vanderbilt campus look much more like the photos below, where I was looking outward onto 21st Avenue South while standing at the campus edge:

The retail mix is largely the restaurant/coffee shop/bar combination one might expect to cater to a heavy concentration of college students. But the majority of it consists of freestanding, one-story buildings with abundant parking in front or at the side. Nearly all of it is automobile-oriented and less than forty years old. The other primary perimeter street to Vanderbilt, West End Avenue, offers a similar landscape:

The development embodies your average planner’s migraine: wide streets meant to convey automobile traffic quickly, with buildings that overwhelmingly fail to stimulate pedestrianism. To add insult to injury, the fact that the buildings are larger and detached gives them a higher gross leasable area and more opportunity for off-street parking, making the structure far more likely to accommodate tenants that are national chains with deep pockets. Even the few structures that are built flush with the sidewalk still seem to repel mom-and-pop stores. Instead of eclectic local enterprise immediately outside one of the nation’s most respected universities, the visitors’ eyes are greeted with this:

The horror! Frankly, I don’t want to devote a post to criticizing this sort of development; it might not be conducive to heavy tree canopy and might seem blandly suburban to some, but it has done nothing to harm the verdant beauty or repute of the University, and it does provide an abundance of convenient shopping opportunities for the students. Instead, I hope to evaluate it on its own terms, based on what it reveals about Nashville’s development in and around Vanderbilt.

Nashville was not a prominent city at the time of Vanderbilt’s establishment. With a population barely over 25,000, it may have been a comparatively large city within the mid-South region, but it was hardly a national center on par with a dozen different cities in the Northeast. (By comparison, Cambridge, Massachusetts had nearly twice as many people at that time, and it was always the adjacent community to the much larger city of Boston.) Even in the 1950s, the city limits of Nashville only contained about 175,000 inhabitants; the city’s emergence as the key city of Tennessee, surpassing Memphis to become a capital of the booming New South, did not really take place until the 1970s. Vanderbilt was founded in an almost rural area at the time; the urbanization of central Nashville clearly didn’t jolt in the direction of the school until well after the automobile. The photos below offers a quick snapshot of the “membrane” that connects Vanderbilt campus to Nashville downtown, where West End Avenue crosses Interstate 65:

The interstate forms a distinct edge between the downtown (on its northeast side) and the strikingly automobile-oriented growth pattern on the opposite, southwest side. My suspicion is that the US Highways 70 and 431, which comprise the general eastern and western boundaries of Vanderbilt, were predominantly quick exits from Nashville until suburban development patterns engulfed them. Interspersed amidst the auto-oriented development are visibly older structures, such as this church next to a contemporary office building:

Another example shows what appears to have been an old automobile service station that has been adaptively reused into conventional retail, all while preserving about two dozen off-street parking spaces:

And the structures below were featured from a distance in one of the earlier photos. They appear to be older private residences that have been adapted to retail uses:

The one on the right appears to have undergone a particularly intensive façade alteration in order to endow it with the first-floor fenestration that makes it a retail-friendly building. The prevailing question remains: how many of these older vestiges faced the bulldozer to make way for the strip mall development that predominates? Was the area immediately surrounding Vanderbilt always so sparsely settled? Not all of the greater Vanderbilt area consists of this fascinating automobile oriented/urban hybrid, but the exceptions are rare. Among the few areas near Vanderbilt with the true feel of an urban neighborhood is Hillsboro Village, a former streetcar suburb that emerges as one continues southwesterly along 21st Avenue South, the old Hillsboro Road. The area was long ago annexed by Nashville, but it retains a short strip of one- and two-story commercial buildings flush with the sidewalk; the only widely visible parking is directly on 21st Avenue. Not surprisingly, the floor plate of these structures, much smaller than your average auto-oriented retail building and typically with a 1-to-3 width-to-depth ratio, more widely supports the local restaurants and vendors typically associated with university communities—the type we often describe as “eclectic”. I unfortunately don’t have photos of Hillsboro Village of my own; this Flickr photo effectively captures the neighborhood’s character: perhaps the closest to Vanderbilt community’s Main Street.

Vanderbilt’s development offers a sort of architectural palimpsest, with one developmental language superimposed on another, based largely on expediency of the time period. From my observations, it appears that, for the first fifty to seventy years of Vanderbilt University’s institutional life, it sat in an almost rural setting on the purlieus of the small city of Nashville—a city which may have been less than 10 square miles in its totality at the time. As the city grew, predominantly after the automobile, the two primary streets (West End Avenue and 21st Avenue South) remained efficient arterials for conveying traffic out to the neighborhoods such as Hillsboro Village and the adjacent countryside, even as the countryside rapidly suburbanized. The built environment between Vanderbilt and Nashville thus overwhelmingly supports cars. Only in recent years have developers adapted to growing consumer preferences for a community with a more urban character, offering infill construction that supports higher residential density and promotes the walkability that seems natural for a large university environment. And the City of Nashville has demonstrated a growing support for higher density in these areas close to the downtown through the relatively recent implementation of Urban Zoning Overlay districts. The Vanderbilt area has undergone a distinctive succession of development styles: initially largely rural, it became stereotypically suburban before its proximity to downtown and the reliable employment base made it a potential location from emergent neighborhoods. The photo below, taken from a mid-rise hotel, effectively captures all three phases:

The turn-of-the-century residential presence largely suffered demolition to accommodate strip malls and car-friendly shopping plazas, but now mid and high-density multifamily developments, hotels, and office buildings are taking advantage of infill opportunities on the remaining tracts of vacant land. Nashville may never be as dense as Cambridge (and most likely the majority of Nashville’s residents prefer it that way), but the lack of density in some regards enhances its versatility, like a painting with a great deal of canvas still exposed. The transitional area around Vanderbilt University is showing a remarkable adaptivity to cultural shifts in preferred lifestyles, fusing urban intensity with the relaxed vibe of a college town through incremental infill developments. In another decade or two, fashionable urban living may demand new architectural incarnations, and I am willing to bet that Nashville will be more receptive to it than many places—it’s clearly less hemmed-in than a city like Cambridge and widely open to reinvention. If the city can retain its high level of housing affordability, I imagine it will enjoy many more years of boomtown status to come.