Seeing colleges and universities as living parts of our communities

University of Wyoming: Old Main was built in the Romanesque Revival style in 1886. Photo by Brad Stebleton.

University of Wyoming: Old Main was built in the Romanesque Revival style in 1886. Photo by Brad Stebleton.

What happens on campuses is very important within their communities and planning for those spaces is a challenging and critical function.

by Brad Stebleton, Bernalillo, New Mexico

On the last morning of the 2015 Western Planner/WYOPASS Conference in Laramie, I was fortunate to be part of a mobile workshop covering the University of Wyoming (UW) campus (historic vs. new) and very ably guided by Larry Blake, AICP, UW’s Facilities Director and University Architect.

This university, situated in the heart of Laramie at just over 7,200 feet, is the highest of any public college in the nation. UW is also the state’s only four-year college, which is both a blessing and a curse. UW receives a lot of attention and funding from the Wyoming Legislature since it does not have to complete with a slate of other universities as is the case in other states. However, all of this legislative attention does bring with it challenges, as legislators are more closely involved in the “nuts and bolts” of campus decision making than is the case in more populous states with a number of universities.

University of Wyoming. Photo by Brad Stebleton.

University of Wyoming. Photo by Brad Stebleton.

UW was born in the late nineteenth century as a lot of other universities in the West. Unlike at a lot of those universities, much of UW’s inventory of historic buildings has survived intact. UW’s Old Main, completed in the 1880s, never faced proposed demolition like Hodgin Hall at the University of New Mexico or the University of Arizona’s Old Main. As on other college campuses, historic structures at UW are now being updated and restored, including Half Acre Gym (Home of the 1943 NCAA Men’s National Championship basketball team) and Merica Hall, where Larry’s office is located.

So seriously has preservation been taken at UW that two areas on the campus have been designated in statute by the legislature as open spaces in perpetuity, including the very well known Prexy’s Pasture. As was the case with other well-known college spaces such as the Ohio State University Oval, Prexy’s Pasture has been “pedestrianized” meaning that all of the roads around it have been eliminated and replaced with walking and cycling paths. It was clear during our visit that these paths enjoy heavy usage free from automotive interference.

Similar to other campuses, preservation at UW has had its challenges. An architectural theme of buildings built with locally quarried sandstone was established with Old Main and continued forward for many years afterward. However, as happened all around the country, the period from 1955-1985 was not kind to UW’s history. A number of buildings arose on campus that deviated from that earlier style including some dormitories visible from Grand Avenue at the “front” of the campus and others that can be seen from Prexy’s Pasture. Partially as a result of these events, a campus historic preservation plan was developed and adopted by the university in 1999. Implementation of this 600 plus page plan and renewed attention by the Legislature has marked a return to that earlier style in newer buildings that have been built on campus. While the plan has worked well, it contains a section stating that it would be periodically reviewed. As a result, it is now in the process of being updated. According to Larry, the new plan should be adopted in 2016, and has generated no shortage of attention and involvement around campus.

While UW faces challenges in preserving its past, it also must look to its future growth and development. Like many other colleges, UW has challenges related to parking and with future expansion on a campus that is surrounded by a town. It also has important assets. Unlike many “college towns,” UW’s connection to its community along Grand Avenue is marked by many stately and well-preserved homes rather than the “carbohydrate row” of fast food joints and run down rentals that front other campuses. UW also has a university run transit system that works well, and the university has yet to construct a parking garage. However, future growth must be accommodated, and UW is guided in that regard by a Campus Master Plan, adopted by the university in 2010. There has been an interest on the part of the Legislature in avoiding “concrete canyons” on campus by having buildings farther apart with open spaces around them. However, this further increases pressure for outward expansion.

UW has begun the process of land acquisition and planning for future uses on new lands northwest of the current campus. In recognition of the pro-property rights character of the region, the university has elected not to use eminent domain in its acquisitions. Larry’s description of this planning process and all of its challenges and rewards resonated strongly with the Western planners in attendance on our tour. The UW planning process has been greatly aided by its positive relationship with the city of Laramie, a fact evidenced by the inclusion of one of the city’s planners in our group. Not all universities are blessed with such a relationship, and this should serve the planning process well going forward.

While interesting and informative, this tour was also a reminder to attendees that colleges and universities are living parts of our communities, not just places to be graduated from and forgotten about except on football weekends. What happens on these campuses is very important within their communities and beyond and planning for those spaces is a challenging and critical function. I hope to return to Laramie and UW someday and see the positive results of the work that Larry and his staff are undertaking.

Brad Stebleton is a senior planner for Sandoval County, NM. He currently serves as secretary on the board of Western Planning Resources and is a member of the Western Planner Editorial Board.

Published December 2015/January 2016

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