Wednesday, November 14, 2007

When a university was more transparent (about setbacks) than ESDC/FCR

Sure, universities should aim to be more transparent than private developers, but it's instructive to look at the recent book, The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets, by Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, in light of the decision by the Empire State Development Corporation and Forest City Ratner to claim confidentiality regarding the setbacks of the planned Atlantic Yards arena.

Rodin describes Penn's effort at transforming its community:
The values that underpinned the plan we developed in 2001 included connectivity of the University with the neighborhood and the city, celebration of our historical heritage within Philadelphia, and development of community-friendly open space wherever possible. From these values, six goals emerged as key to achieving Penn’s aspiration to become a great urban university connected to its neighborhood and the city...

We saw that we could promote connectivity with the community and city by taking walls and fences down and emphasizing visual transparency of buildings and accessibility to open spaces. When the master plan was approved by the Board of Trustees we produced, a twenty-minute video on our Web site described the overall plan and proposed projects. People were actually taken aback by the open communication and lack of secrecy. As the work got under way, we validated each new building’s massing and setbacks as they would affect the public realm. While we were renovating buildings we gave them new public entrances from the street side of campus as well as from internal courtyards. We re-clad buildings that had stern brick walls facing the street with new window and wall systems that improved their aesthetics and transparency…

(Emphasis added)

The Columbia comparison

The closest comparison with Penn's achievement is not Atlantic Yards but the Columbia University expansion, and I pointed out last week that the challenge of revitalizing West Philadelphia was much easier for a university than expanding into West Harlem.

And Matthew Schuerman of the New York Observer made the point in a 7/31/07 article headlined Can’t We All Just Get Along?:
On the other hand, it is unclear just what Mr. [Lee] Bollinger [of Columbia] can learn from Penn because of differences between the two campuses. West Philadelphia was, at least as Dr. Rodin describes it, blighted, crime-ridden and on the way out. Harlemites are already facing gentrification from private developers, and the idea of a stuffy, privileged institution setting up shop cannot help but create some friction.

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