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.”