Planning for Town and Gown
By Matt Hoffman
Like most places in America, the urban avenues of Arkansas comprise the vast majority of our public space. The presence or absence of bike lanes, street trees, sidewalks, parking, as well as nuances in building size, location, use and design can teach you almost everything you need to know about what is most important to decision makers, but what do these characteristics teach us about the values of people who live in these communities? The extent to which a community’s values are expressed in the design of its public spaces is perhaps one of the best measures of success in urban planning.
If streets are teachers, Duncan Avenue in Fayetteville is a visiting professor; one who is mature and experienced, but more than a little confused about their surroundings. Running south from the University of Arkansas toward a formerly quiet neighborhood, Duncan lurches down the hill, simultaneously complemented by some of the best ideas in urban design and buffeted by some of the worst.
Like many streets in college towns across the country, Duncan has been subjected to an incredibly wide variety of development processes. Beginning with single-family homes built before zoning, Duncan has evolved into an odd collision between private projects built on a municipal zoning code that has struggled to adapt to the pace of change, and public projects built according to the land grant university’s standard bureaucratic process. The current Avenue offers a vivid look at the miraculous opportunities and unfortunate pitfalls inherent to making places in a thriving college town.
On the East side of Duncan Avenue, between William and Center Streets, the University built what is perhaps the best example of modern townhouse apartments in the state. Maturing street trees partially obscure a very humane three-story façade with front doors, stoops, patios and balconies fronting a well-lit, well-trafficked sidewalk. Although the project was produced by the University’s inward-looking process with no public input, and without regard to the city’s zoning code, the end result is everything that Fayettevillians could want in public space. If you stand on the west side of the street and look east, the beauty of this project can almost make you forget what has happened on the rest of the street. Almost.
A few years after completion of the Duncan Avenue Apartments, a massive redevelopment of the area began with new investments coming in from the university as well as a host of private developments. In the absence of direct coordination between the city’s development policy and the university’s growth strategy, several of the new buildings wound up dramatically changing the streetscape in ways that neither institution could have predicted. The resulting corridor is one where the beautifully crafted Duncan Avenue Apartments stand out as a bit of an anomaly in terms of their human scale and strong connection to the walkable street. The juxtaposition of different building types and architectural solutions exposes a period in the history of Fayetteville when the need for new development seemed to outpace the original vision for Duncan Avenue.
Through it all, U of A projects have continued to exemplify the high standards for quality public space that the Duncan Avenue apartments so deftly employ. A new parking garage on Garland avenue to the north of campus is so successful in its design that officials in the city of Fayetteville now use it as an example of best practices in discussion of regulations for new garages. Here again, a sharp focus on the relationship between building and sidewalk gives the impression that Garland Avenue is a place for people, not just cars. The building’s layered plan strategy helps to accomplish this by providing a thin band of retail and other uses to insulate the street from automobile storage. Absent a public process, this success can best be attributed to the talent and vision of leadership within the University of Arkansas’s planning office. This insular course of activity, while at times fragile, represents the norm in most university towns throughout the country, but that may be changing.
If Duncan Avenue is a visiting professor, El Paso Avenue in Russellville Arkansas is an assistant professor—young, ambitious and determined to change the way we think about town and gown development. Historically undervalued and under invested, the street was largely ignored by civic leaders until just a few years ago. Buildings in the area mostly still resemble the first phase of Duncan’s improvement with small historic homes and vacant lots punctuated by clumsily placed and poorly cared for multifamily buildings constructed before zoning and development codes. The old El Paso espoused no particular set of values, instead reflecting the type of anything goes atmosphere that is pervasive among many small towns in Arkansas.
Owing partly to the success of off-campus development in Fayetteville and Conway, and to new leadership in the city and at Arkansas Tech University, community leaders have recently set out to change El Paso’s story for good. Their aim is to turn Russellville from the “suitcase college town” that it has been, one where everyone goes home on the weekend, to the thriving community that it could be.
Beginning with Russellville’s first downtown master plan in 2008, leaders in City government realized that El Paso could be something special. The street runs south from the campus of Arkansas Tech University to Russellville’s historic downtown a mile away. This first planning effort focused on mobility, with the goal of creating a walkable and bikeable corridor connecting Russellville’s two cultural centers. The City set to work immediately transforming the aging street section into a walker’s paradise, complete with sustainable storm water infrastructure, landscaping, protected bike lanes and sidewalks. When it came time to do an update to the original downtown master plan a few years later, all that was needed at that point was a game plan for development of new buildings along the corridor. What happened next represents nothing short of a complete departure from the norm in college town planning.
Working together, a joint committee including the mayor, city planners, business leaders, the president of the university, and other university faculty and staff set out to create a truly shared vision for new development in the El Paso corridor. Aware of the Duncan Avenue style miss-matches that can sometimes result from rapid expansion into a community, the committee took great care to design a planning process that would address the needs of a growing university while reflecting the values of the broader community.
Early stages of the process focused on development demand. Detailed studies were commissioned to analyze growth characteristics both within the university and throughout Russellville. As the major driver of development in the area, the university’s recently completed strategic plan provided a wealth of insight. Several rounds of interviews with stakeholder groups provided perspective from university faculty and staff, students, local business leaders, property owners and renters. An online presence utilizing #ExperienceElPaso extended the reach of public input, and Pop-Up events on the street allowed the public to visualize new types of activity in real time. Ultimately, thousands of people were able to take part in a conversation about the future of their community. The public process culminated with a community workshop that allowed the president of the university, the mayor and members of the public to sit face to face with designers crafting a vision for the corridor.
In the following months, city planners set to work transferring the vision of the master plan into a legal zoning and development code to be taken up by the city council. Ideas about the height of buildings, architectural elements, allowed uses, landscaping and parking were all codified, and ultimately became law in the City of Russellville. While the new code doesn’t technically apply to Arkansas Tech, a state university, the school views the document as a binding commitment to their community. This type of commitment wouldn’t be possible if not for the high level of cooperation between the city, the university and the people of Russellville. As development of El Paso continues to mature, it stands to reason that this Avenue will have a lot to teach about the values of the community that created it.
In the coming years, development pressure will continue to test collegiate communities around the state, and we can expect innovation to come in many different forms. Planned buildings at the University of Arkansas’s new Arts District and Stadium Drive are pushing the envelope in terms of building technology, utilizing a new structural material called Mass Timber to catalyze a community-wide commitment to sustainability in the building industry. Meanwhile, off-campus developments in Conway from both Hendrix College and the University of Central Arkansas are pushing the boundaries of placemaking in Arkansas by re-introducing walkable development patterns in formerly auto-oriented districts. While growing pains are inevitable, college towns throughout Arkansas are well positioned to lead the conversation about placemaking in our state, and their streets will tell the story.