Rob Goodspeed and David Daddio

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

During the day, the University of Maryland at College Park could be the ideal college campus. The university’s roughly 45,000 students and faculty fill the carefully manicured grounds, streaming in and out of picturesque Georgian buildings. However, at 5:00 p.m. another side of the University reveals itself. Cars stream out of the many parking garages and lots, clogging the campus gates and merging with already heavy traffic on Route 1, a major regional highway adjacent to campus and dividing downtown into two. Virtually all faculty and graduate students are issued parking permits and drive to campus. In total, the university has issued 25,325 permits for roughly 20,033 parking spaces. After class, most people evacuate College Park, leaving behind a small “city” of roughly 25,000, split evenly between students and families. The “downtown” is just a step from campus and consists of a couple blocks of sandwich and burrito shops and three overcrowded bars. Up the road are generic suburban car dealerships and strip malls. College Park is a city few love and most students are glad to move away from upon graduation.

Located just six miles from the Washington, D.C., border and two miles inside the beltway, College Park never had much of a shot at developing a college town character. Up until recently the university was a commuter school and known as a “safety school” for Maryland’s brightest high-school graduates. However, with recent rising admission standards and a deliberate effort by state leaders to transform the school’s academics, the college is quickly emerging as a top-tier national research university. Although more students than ever come from afar and want to live near campus, their options are severely limited by an aging housing stock and a community wary of new construction. A recent cover story in the Washington City Paper titled “Shell of a Town” described College Park as having the “locational charm of a highway rest stop” hardly on par with great college towns like Urbana-Champaign, Berkeley, and Ann Arbor to which it aspires.

All is not lost in College Park though. An ongoing regional real estate boom combined with the presence of a major university is drawing big investments and bringing hope that College Park may finally emerge as a livable, walkable, and dynamic city. Student body president Andrew Rose made improving the city a major priority during his term last school year. Rose and other student government leaders organized a day-long student-led design charrette (defined as “holistic, collaborative planning process that harnesses the talents and energies of all interested parties to create and support a feasible plan”) in collaboration with the university’s architecture program to brainstorm how the city could grow and change. “College Park is a suburb of D.C. and not as much of a college town as it ought to be,” Rose explained, “I thought it was an opportune time to put things in writing, so the city and university can never say students never contributed to the discussion.”

Although excitement is building in College Park, the community remains divided. University and city leaders do not coordinate their decisions. University students are almost totally excluded from city politics (there are no students on city council and never have been). Developers interested in new projects face a gauntlet of criticism by NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) city council members and citizen activists even if their projects conform to the zoning laws and would provide badly needed amenities.

In order to bridge these deep divides we launched an informational website called Rethink College Park last summer. Part student group, part journalism, part advocacy, and part civic engagement project, our official mission is to “help transform College Park into a great college town” by connecting the university, city, and development communities. Since our launch in July 2006 our site has showcased dozens of development projects being considered in the city, analyzed city policies that restrict the amount of rental housing in the city, conducted a detailed candidate survey for a city council election and showcased creative student ideas about new parks, housing, and retail choices.

Although it is difficult to measure our full impact, Rethink College Park is succeeding in our first and primary goal: to connect the constituents in an open forum. Our readers included high-ranking university administrators, city council members, students of all types, city residents, development professionals, university alumni and many more. Our writers have produced over 100 posts, the site attracts hundreds of readers a day, and readers have left roughly 300 comments.

In order to reach beyond the online world, last October we collaborated with student leaders to organize a highly successful housing forum that brought together undergraduates, city leaders, and 25 representatives from the region’s largest real estate developers for a frank discussion about the issue of student housing in College Park. We are in the planning stages for an event designed to engage students in a multimillion-dollar development currently in the planning stages by university leaders.

Our single-minded focus on helping transform College Park into a great college town has led to discussions on the site about a host of progressive issues: sustainable design on campus, controlling sprawl through smart growth, protecting local small business, enhancing bike and pedestrian amenities, and ensuring full political participation in local elections. In a world where our campuses and nations are splintered into different interest groups, we are attempting to create a public forum where all feel welcome and common goals are developed.

With many institutions interested in building or expanding college towns near their campuses, students are in a unique role to ensure the development agenda includes what they value, whether it is sustainable design, affordable housing, socio-economic diversity, or the protection of small businesses. We believe students should be actively engaged in the design of their campuses and towns, and a website can be an effective tool to build a group of like-minded students and share knowledge about what is happening in your community.

Here in College Park, everything is in flux–the town-gown relationship, the character of new developments, the student body, and the administrators. We’re seeking to nullify the old adage “the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same” by rethinking how we build.

Rob Goodspeed is a first-year student in the Masters of Community Planning program at the University of Maryland. He is a co-founder and editor of Rethink College Park, and previously founded in Ann Arbor, MI, and in Washington, D.C. Before graduate school, he worked as an organizer and Internet coordinator for the organization People For the American Way. David Daddio is currently finishing up his B.A. in Environmental Economics at the University of Maryland. He is a co-founder and editor of Rethink College Park and has held internships with the Louis Berger Group in Washington, D.C., and the Wasatch Cache National Forest in Utah.