Looking for productive ways to use the campuses of closed colleges

When college campuses close, what happens to the land and buildings?

Saint Joseph is one of several small private liberal arts colleges across the country to have suffered that fate in recent years. In many of those cases, leaders are left wondering what to do with the shuttered campus. Under the wrong circumstances, buildings can remain locked and quads can lie fallow for years as banks try to recoup unpaid debts or brokers seek buyers who are willing to invest in land filled with outdated or dilapidated buildings…

Conversations between community and state leaders led to a search for partners interested in working with the college. That brought Vermont Works, an investment firm, and Vermont Innovation Commons, a benefit corporation that is a project of Vermont Works, into the picture.

Ideas grew for trying to offer education to a wide range of students, keep Vermonters in the state and attract new residents, Scott said. The direct path from high school through college to employment isn’t necessarily what employers or students want anymore. Professional skills, technical skills and experience are being emphasized much more today than they were in the recent past…

Across the country, the idea of repurposing closed or closing colleges is a critical planning problem, according to experts. College leaders need to be considering their prospects for the future and whether different models can help them fulfill their institutions’ missions, said Nicholas Santilli, senior director for learning strategy at the Society for College and University Planning.

Redeveloping large properties is not an easy task: see shopping malls, big box stores and large retail stores, and office parks. College campuses present their own unique challenges given how the land is used. Simply plopping a new organization into the same set of buildings is likely to be difficult. Location will matter as well; the story above used the example of a more rural college where there is limited demand for land.

As the story hints, it would be great to be able to use the property for an ongoing educational purpose to keep the mission of the college going. If that does not work, perhaps the land could be used for community purposes. Ultimately, simply turning the property back to the free market for commercial, industrial, or residential uses – which could generate more money and taxes for local communities – seems like it could be a loss. Given the predicted fate of numerous colleges and universities, perhaps we will have a landscape in a few decades where it will be hard to know that the land formerly housed a thriving higher education institution.

I wonder if there is a way for college campuses to head off the problem long before they need to close their doors. Would having more permeable membranes between the campus and the community better connect all the land uses? is the impulse to have a controlled campus a bad idea in the long run for communities?

Reasons for replacing “Freeways Without Future”

A new report from the Congress of New Urbanism titled “Freeways Without Futures” looks at the ten urban highways and interchanges that need to go. Why might cities pursue these projects? Here are some common themes in such plans:

1. Reconnect neighborhoods and communities that highways split. When constructed, highways with their width and imposing traffic split social collectives. Or, highways can impede development by providing a barrier. Removing the highway allows for more pedestrian traffic as well as more meaningful connection between residents and businesses on both sides of the highway. New development can span the former highway or help bridge the divide.

2. Create more green space. Highways are the result of auto-oriented urbanism that trampled over and through communities. Removing the highways allows for more parks and trees, among other natural features. Plus, it reduces noise and emissions from the highway (though these might be simply moved to another kind of thoroughfare).

3. Remove eyesores. Highways can create visual blight on the urban landscape. Highways block sight lines and present an imposing concrete structure. Without their presence, particularly elevated highways, people are free to see more of the city.

4. Removing the highway could be part of a larger project of reducing dependence on cars and vehicles and a shift toward mass transit and pedestrians. Removing the above-ground highway is one step but that same highway could simply be routed elsewhere or underground without affecting transportation choices.

Exact numbers on how many religious buildings have sold in the last five years

I have tracked the fate of religious buildings both professionally and on this blog (such as conversions to residential units). I have also asked: just how many conversions of religious buildings to residences are taking place?

Some hard numbers to start answer this question recently arrived:

More than 6,800 religious buildings have sold in the past five years and more than 1,400 are currently for sale in the U.S., according to the commercial real estate database CoStar.

Some will be sold to other congregations, while others will become something entirely different — like a nun-themed coffee shop.

And some helpful context for these numbers:

“The buildings we have that were built in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s are not really functional for today’s perspective,” said Simons, author of Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn: The Adaptive Reuse of America’s Derelict Religious Buildings and Schools. “Too many classrooms, a little bit too big.”

These large religious buildings can fall into disrepair, placing a financial burden on shrinking congregations. The process is a “vicious circle,” said Simons, because congregations in deteriorating buildings may have trouble attracting new members, which in turn reduces donations.

The numbers are helpful: out of roughly 300,000 religious congregations in the United States, roughly 1,350 religious buildings a year are sold. Alas, we do not get more data on what happens to those structures. The rest of this news story follows a format similar to earlier stories: religious buildings can be turned into all sorts of things! This is true – there are lots of possibilities. How many are demolished? Converted into businesses or residences? Made into schools, community centers, or homes for non-profit groups? And while the angle of a religious buildings becoming a secular structure is interesting, the number of times one religious group sells to another – a fairly common occurrence and often a very helpful option for the purchasing congregation – is ignored.

Going further, the numbers on sales only tell so much when the range of costs to rehab or reuse the building could be high. The suggestion from the story above is that a number of the buildings need significant work. Selling a building may often be a last resort of a congregation, meaning the group may not have had the resources to take proactively keep up the building for a while. The sale of the building might just be the first step in a much longer process of transforming the building (which my research suggests could then lead to issues in the community regarding making changes to an established structure).

SimCity, Jane Jacobs, and real estate values near the High Line

In a recent walk along New York’s High Line, I was reminded of two competing claims about how parks enhance nearby land uses.

In SimCity’s take on urban planning, building a park was a good way to help adjacent properties. If nearby residential and commercial properties suffered from low property values – perhaps due to higher crime rates or locations near industry – building a park could help enhance their values. This seems to make intuitive sense: people like being near greenery and this land use can distract or suppress less desirable land uses.

Jane Jacobs, in contrast, suggests parks are not the automatic panacea some planners suggest. More important than simply having green or recreational space is having a steady mix of people flowing through and around the park. It is human activity that makes the park, not just green space. Indeed, negative activity can thrive and recreational space can easily become part of a dull or blighted area.

HighLineAug19

In a simplistic take, the High Line seems to support both of these views. The conversion of an unused railroad line to a thriving park has enhanced nearby property values. The park is regularly filled with people – from tourists to local walkers to vendors – during much of the day. This is a success story for both the SimCity and Jane Jacobs school of urban planning.

Yet, how exactly such an urban space came about and has both positive (new development!) and negative (those same values limiting who can live nearby!) consequences is more than just plopping a park into an area that could use more development. If it worked this way, every city would have such a successful project.

HighLine2Aug19

In a complex environment like Manhattan where land is highly prized and regulated, putting together such a project takes collective efforts spanning activists, residents, local officials, developers, and others who have an interest in this land and who may have competing interests. Property values may indeed be high and the park full but the long-term effects of this on the neighborhood and the city are harder to assess.

Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part Two

Yesterday, I summarized the redevelopment plans for the East Roosevelt Road Corridor in Wheaton and the Giesche Shoe project in Glen Ellyn. Based on online sources, I will summarize the concerns of residents. There is a common theme: they perceive the character of the community is at stake.

In Wheaton, here are some of the stated concerns:

“We are a residential city, and our city planning should reflect that,” she said. “A forward-thinking city understands that pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and bike lanes are what attract new homebuyers, keep residents, increases equity for current homeowners and subsequently increases city revenue based on increased home value and an increased tax base.”

Nancy Flannery, the chairwoman of the city’s historic preservation commission, worries about the possible demolition of another Jarvis Hunt-designed house, now converted into offices at 534 Roosevelt. Built in 1896, the house was one of the first summer cottages constructed for members of the private Chicago Golf Club.

And a few more representative comments from the same May 28, 2019 meeting:

expressed concern that the proposed changes would build up retail, contribute to congestion and be detrimental to neighboring residents. He stated there are already vacancies and the report is not clear on what types of businesses would be interested in Roosevelt Road…

stated he thinks the plan as presented harms the neighborhood in terms of traffic, safety, noise, light and visual aesthetics, and he doesn’t think there is a problem on Roosevelt Road that needs fixing…

stated she does not want developers to be able to build commercial businesses on lots behind Roosevelt Road. She stated she does not want to see 4- or 5-story buildings being constructed right near residential areas.

In Glen Ellyn, some representative comments from an online petition:

Local congestion, size out of proportion (too large and bulky), traffic pattern near local churches & private school, etc…

It’s going to ruin the quant village that we choose to live in. We want to live in a village not a city with large structures – we would have chosen to live in Wheaton Or Naperville ( village is the key word – we are not a city Or town. We are the Village of Glen ellyn )…

a number of villages used to have charms that brought shoppers and new residents (e.g. elmhurst, arlington heights, mt prospect). their boards allowed developers to build in violation of existing codes and these charms were lost. don’t let that happen here…

My husband and I moved here because the town was still lovely, quiet, and mostly unmarred by the huge, unsightly, commercial behemoths scarring most of the surrounding suburbs. Glen Ellyn still has charm and an organic feeling of development. This development does not fit in at all with the feeling and aesthetic of the town. Say no!

In both cases, the concerns residents voiced are consistent across hundreds of development and redevelopment projects in suburbs across the United States. Having studied this in multiple ways (several of my projects address similar issues including “Not All Suburbs are the Same” and “‘Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Structure’“, residents generally bring up the same concerns: increased traffic, lights, and noise; a change in scale (particularly when it comes to height); and threats to residences (usually single-family homes) and the character of a suburb.

In Wheaton, the character issue is not stated as clearly but it is present. This major road is one of the primary ways people see the suburb. How should it look compared to the stretch of Roosevelt on Glen Ellyn which is more like the strip mall approach and Winfield to the west which is more green and residential (and not coincidentally they are fought their own battles over taking advantage of possible business opportunities on such a busy road)? This is not just about a busy roadway or the homes that back up to this stretch; this is about signalling what kind of place Wheaton is. One that values businesses or homeowners, one that prioritizes vehicles or pedestrians, one that celebrates its history or is looking to simply make money?

Interestingly, Wheaton comes up in the Glen Ellyn comments as a place that some Glen Ellyn residents do not want to become. Since the late 1990s, Wheaton has pursued downtown condos and office buildings. Other suburbs come up in the comments including more lively downtowns like Naperville and Arlington Heights. These Glen Ellyn residents have some similar concerns that most redevelopment projects engender – traffic, noise – but this particular project seems to be a step too big for their downtown. Can five stories “fit” with the existing downtown? This is not just about seeing the building from a distance: it is about a sense of scale for pedestrians, how the building might tower over nearby businesses and residences, and what this portends for the future of the downtown. Let this big development in and Glen Ellyn will become just another suburban downtown chasing after tall buildings and money to the detriment of residents who liked to feel they live in a small town.

Perhaps the big question here is this: are these concerns from residents valid? Are these just NIMBY responses? Who should control what kind of development occurs in a suburban community? Americans like suburbs in part because they feel like they have access to local leaders and can influence local decisions. From my own research on suburban communities, I am fairly convinced there are some suburban residents who move into a neighborhood and community and desire to freeze the place in that exact configuration. Indeed, they moved to the suburb for particular reasons. On the other hand, cities and suburbs are encouraged to grow (stagnation or population loss is failure) and development or redevelopment opportunities do not always come along easily or in forms that local officials or residents will like. If these communities do not act now, will they lose economic opportunities to other suburbs and in the long run shoot themselves in the foot by not upgrading when they can?

If local residents are vocal enough, they can likely slow down or nix these redevelopment projects. How many residents have to voice displeasure is not clear; few suburbanites are invested in local politics even if they count on the opportunities to voice this displeasure to protect their own investments. Local officials do listen and will encounter difficulty down the road if they just ram through projects.

Here is what I suspect will happen in the long-term in these two cases (and in suburban disagreements over development and redevelopment generally): few communities are so anti-development that they keep out all changes. Suburbs generally hope to keep growing and this becomes more difficult in more mature suburbs like these two which cannot add new subdivisions. There are only so many ways Wheaton and Glen Ellyn can add businesses and residents. If these changes do not happen now, they will probably happen eventually as the opportunity costs are too steep: local leaders will have a hard time turning down these chances when the possible consequences are lost money, vacant properties, and eyesores. Some local residents will dislike the changes and some might move away. But, the very conception of suburbs may be evolving as well: outside of moving to exurban areas, many suburbs are pursuing more density and vibrant downtowns. This may make suburbs all the more complex in how they are understood and experienced and in how residents think of their community’s character.

 

Rethink Rezoning, Save Main responses share similar concerns – Part One

The suburb in which I live and the neighboring suburb both have proposed redevelopment ideas and each has attracted opposition from residents. Both sets of opposition have yard signs to voice their displeasure and residents have spoken at public meetings.

Part One of this analysis involves the basics of the proposed projects and how this fits into what suburbs generally try to do.

The Rethink Rezoning group is responding to a study commissioned by the city of Wheaton to improve development along the busy Roosevelt Road corridor that runs east-west through the center of the suburb. From the Daily Herald:

Wheaton’s East Roosevelt Road corridor has a hodgepodge of businesses and housing, obsolete office space and no consistent sidewalk network that encourages pedestrians to walk from one end of the nearly 2-mile stretch to the other…

Consultants propose a “Horizontal Mixed-Use Zone” from Carlton Avenue to West Street/Warrenville Road, currently a mix of low-intensity offices, houses and residential structures adapted into offices. In that subdistrict, the city should expand the palette of permitted land uses, including limited retail and “personal service establishments,” the report states.

Farther east, a “Commercial Core Zone” between West and President streets could concentrate new development of significant size — greater than anywhere else along the corridor — taking advantaging of proximity to the downtown and the Mariano’s grocery store. The Mariano’s intersection has traffic congestion when cars queuing up in the west turn-lane from Naperville Road to Roosevelt.

A “Mixed-Use Flexible Zone” from President to Lorraine Road “should encourage a broad range of uses, including retail, service, office and multifamily residential,” according to the report.

See a more complete draft report from earlier this year.

The Save Main group is opposed to a mixed-use five-story building to be built on the southern edge of Glen Ellyn’s downtown. Here is a 2018 description from the Daily Herald:

A new redevelopment plan for an old shoe store in downtown Glen Ellyn would replace the long-vacant building with an apartment complex that would rise above neighboring restaurants and shops…

Larry Debb and John Kosich are the two principals for the project that would demolish the Giesche store to make room for a five-story apartment building with about 5,360 square feet of first-floor commercial space. The footprint would include what is now the village-owned Main Street parking lot…

But in a letter to village planners, Kosich and Debb said they’re proposing a “condo quality” building with 107 rental units. A two-level parking garage would provide 147 public parking stalls on the first floor, with access off Main Street, Hillside Avenue and Glenwood Avenue. The garage’s second floor — reserved for apartment residents — would contain 142 stalls…

Such a mixed-use development with parking would align with the village’s 2001 comprehensive plan and 2009 downtown strategic plan, Hulseberg said. The latter recommends the village add at least 450 new residential units downtown.

Neither of these projects are unusual for suburban communities. Indeed, they both attempt to take advantage of unique traits already in the suburb.

In Wheaton, the Roosevelt Road corridor has been an area of interest for the city for decades. With tens of thousands of cars passing through each day, it presents an opportunity, particularly since it is just south of the downtown (and traffic does not necessarily turn off Roosevelt to go downtown) and north of the other major shopping area at Danada (along the busy Butterfield Road corridor). But, Wheaton has generally been conservative about what development they allow along this stretch. Compared to Glen Ellyn to the east or the Ogden Avenue corridor in northwest Naperville, the Roosevelt Road stretch in Wheaton is relatively void of strip malls, fast food restaurants, car repair places, and rundown facilities. Again: this has been an intentional effort to maintain a certain level of quality.

The proposed changes would build on this by updating some uses (most suburbs utilize single-use zoning but this can be restrictive in certain areas) and try to encourage some cohesiveness across stretches. What is now a hodgepodge of offices, some older houses, some more recent office buildings, could have a more uniform character and present a more pleasing aesthetic. I don’t know how many people will walk along such a busy road but it certainly does not lend itself to that now. All of this could help improve aesthetics and bring in more revenue from taxes in a revitalized district. Having a more uniform plan could help bring in more money for the city which then helps relieve local tax burdens.

In Glen Ellyn, such a project both fits with the village’s own goals and echoes what numerous suburbs in the Chicago region have tried to do: encourage mixed-use buildings in downtown areas near train stations and existing restaurants and shops. This new project would add to a fairly lively restaurant and retail scene while also adding more residents (and probably wealthier ones – this is not about suburban “affordable housing”) to a suburb that has little greenfield or infill development available. The new residents would patronize local businesses, utilize the train, and contribute to a density that could make the downtown even livelier. Again, one of the benefits would be increased tax revenues: the vacant property would have a more profitable use, the first-floor businesses would add sales tax monies, and the new residents who probably have limited numbers of children would bring in tax dollars.

If these projects are in line with suburban plans – let alone the long-term plans for each community – what are the residents objecting to? More on that in Part Two tomorrow.

Chicago area malls trying to reinvent themselves yet not adding many residential units

Multiple suburban shopping malls in the Chicago area are trying to turn it around with different uses:

A casino is envisioned for the former Lakehurst Shopping Center site in Waukegan, which closed in 2001 and was demolished in 2004. It was the proposed site of a casino until the 10th and final state license was awarded to Des Plaines in 2008. With the latest round of gambling expansion, Waukegan could revive that dream.

St. Charles has seen little momentum on a concept plan presented two years ago for the largely vacant former Charlestowne Mall site north of Route 64. It called for the property’s complete revitalization, including a residential development, a smaller mall building and the construction of free-standing commercial structures. Mall owners have yet to make a deal with developers.

Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale, which opened in 1981, has been struggling for several years having lost three anchor stores since 2014. It launched a multimillion-dollar renovation project featuring interior and exterior improvements at the 1.3 million-square-foot center. An earlier renovation included the 2014 opening of Round1, a 40,000-square-foot entertainment center featuring bowling, billiards, video games and karaoke…

To further increase foot traffic, several suburban malls have incorporated entertainment venues. There’s now a Cinemark movie theater at Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee, a Round One entertainment center at Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, an AMC Hawthorn 12 theater and a Dave & Buster’s at Hawthorn Mall, a Pinstripes near Oakbrook Center and Pac-Man Entertainment (formerly Level 257) at Woodfield.

With retailers everywhere struggling, the trend toward multiple uses in shopping malls continues. The hope is that multiple uses can attract people to the site who after eating might want to shop or who after seeing a movie might want to eat there and so on. (I think this then could lead to the issue of how many entertainment centers can make it in the suburbs but that is another problem to tackle later.)

One piece that is missing from these descriptions: adding residential units. This would likely require some zoning changes as the mall properties probably only allow commercial properties now. Furthermore, it could take some work to reintegrate the full property with the surrounding street grid (which likely includes residential units nearby). Having residents on site could address multiple problems facing suburbs: filling vacant space; providing round-the-clock customers; increased population growth which is an issue in many suburbs with no major land parcels left; and the possibility of having affordable housing. These residential units may not bring in as much money as stores and restaurants that add property and sales tax revenues but they could add life to stand-along properties.