Last fall, the University of Illinois trustees approved the most recent UIS campus development master plan. The document maps the preferred locations of hoped-for new student housing and office and classroom buildings. Also provided for, at least on paper, is a much-expanded athletics complex — NCAA-standard baseball stadium and practice field, a golf driving range and additions of field house and gym space and an indoor recreation swimming pool to the existing recreation and athletic center — to be built south of the ring road laid down when the then-Sangamon State University opened in 1970.
Which is about the time when this kind of plan was in vogue. In the nearly 40 years since then, the planning precepts known as the “New Urbanism” have become as common to new developments as dubious financing. Their authors were reacting to the failures of the old urbanism of the sort reflected in the UIS plan — land divided into single-use zones carefully segregated from each other, with non-academic uses such as child care banished to the periphery outside the ring road, low-density development arrayed on a curvilinear street pattern, and ample, even craven accommodation to the automobile. On the whole, the expanded campus reminds one of the sort of project that made a wealthy man out of Leonard Sapp — may he rest in peace — except that Mr. Sapp would have renamed the place “the University of Illinois at Springfielde.”
Of course, the authors of the current UIS plan were not given a blank slate to draw upon. Their new plan necessarily perpetuates many of the dated concepts built into the campus according to the dictates of all the previous new master plans. What is disheartening is the extent to which anticipated non-campus developments on university-owned vacant land outside the ring road are to be fashioned using the same template.
Of most interest to prospective students trying to decide between UIS and, say, Joliet Junior College is the plan’s provision for a “campustown.” Most university towns have one of these agglomerations of book and coffee shops, burger joints and bars. They pop up on the fringes of campuses the way that brothels pop up around army bases and saloons once clustered across the city line in dry towns, conjured into life by the collective yearning for amenities that nanny-ish institutions refuse to allow within their sacred precincts.
The problem is that there is no town across the street from UIS for a campustown to pop up in. The university envisions a substitute in the form of what UIS officials described as “campustown-type mall.” It would sit across the extended 11th Street from student townhouses at the west edge of campus on 80 acres at the southwest corner of Vachel Lindsay Drive. Possible tenants include a café, coffee shop, grocery store, pharmacy, pizza parlor, maybe even – why not dream? — an “ice cream store.”
Those who still measure progress in Springfield by the addition of yet another strip mall will be gratified by the plan. Students of urban planning are more likely to be dismayed. The new master plan says rightly that “fragmented, spot development should be avoided.” Indeed. There already is an incipient campustown evolving along Toronto Road to the south of campus in the form of strip malls such as Southfield Commons and the Toronto Road Shopping Mall. There students find dry cleaners and a variety of take-out eateries whose fare is sure to dazzle the palates of worldlier business administration majors. Putting a new strip mall offering the same wares on 11th Street will cannibalize such demand for services and amenities as does exist in that corner of the city without adding to it. It might be good planning within the context of the campus, but it constitutes fragmented spot development in the context of the larger urban area.
And it is that context that the plan refuses to recognize. Nor does it recognize the opportunities that its being part of the larger city offers for other sorts of campus development — issues that might figure in future columns. For the moment, one must conclude that the new campus plan, while not bad, also is neither imaginative nor innovative. SSU was to be a new kind of university. That plan failed. UIS has a chance to at least give itself a new — new to this part of Illinois anyway — kind of campus. This plan will fail to do that too, and that’s too bad.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.