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Uneducated Planning Choices Plague California Colleges

What the government builds and where it builds things can have a major impact on a community and on the way generations of people live their lives. The siting of college campuses in California provides a poignant, and depressing, case study. 

This obvious truth was reinforced to me by two recent events: Shasta County's annual count of bicyclists and pedestrians in Redding, and the recent completion of a multi-use trail connecting two sides of Redding that are otherwise divided by a river and a freeway. The bike count is a snapshot, not a comprehensive census. And the picture at Redding's Shasta College is nearly devoid of both cyclists and pedestrians. From 7 to 8:30 a.m. and again from 4 to 6 p.m. on a school day in September, 19 cyclists and 8 pedestrians crossed the intersection in front of the community college's primary entrance.

Those are about the numbers you would expect to get with one change of the signal at an entrance to UC Davis, Chico State or Pasadena City College. I concede that Shasta College is not as large as those institutions -- but one pedestrian every 26 minutes?!

If anyone is going to use their feet or bicycle for transportation, it's college students. The problem is that Shasta College, like most other community college, CSU and UC campuses built during the post-war period, lies on the edge of town in a location accessible almost exclusively by automobile. California's campus construction binge of the late 1940s through the 1960s was ambitious, but overwhelmingly suburban. The assumption was that everyone would drive to and from school. Many universities from that era are still called "commuter schools."

Even my alma mater, CSU Sacramento, which is located in the middle of the metropolis, feels remote because the campus is essentially walled off from the rest of town. Sure, most of the post-war campuses enjoy decent bus service, and my old school does boast a heavily used bicycle and pedestrian bridge across the American River. Still, it's worth remembering that the CSU Sacramento administration vigorously and successfully fought a proposal to place a light rail station on the college campus because of alleged safety concerns. Sorry kid, I know you don't have any money and are racking up debt faster than empty beer cans, but you'll have to buy a car. 

Moreover, the post-war college siting and design decisions relegated a thriving center of activity to a corner of town at the expense of the rest of the community. College kids may not be flush with money, but they are loaded with energy. That's why real college towns such as Davis, Chico and Berkeley pulse with activity. I'm not suggesting that every place needs to be a college town. But many places that are suited for street life become all the more lively with the injection of a few thousand students.

Thirty years after the campus construction boom, we hadn't learned much, as evidenced by the CSU Sacramento light rail fiasco. Another example is UC Merced, which the state chose to build on pastures several miles outside of town 15 years ago. Yes, the plan for eventual development of a university community adjacent to the campus is impressive. Yet it's only more greenfield development in a region where cities are starved for investment, and the school will probably be open for 20 or 30 years before the urban village amounts to much. If we had learned anything, UC Merced would instead be UC Modesto or UC Fresno, and the school would be located in one of those cities' downtowns.

CSU Channel Islands may be worse. The campus makes good use of the old state mental hospital outside Camarillo, but the planned university village is modest. It's an isolated campus surrounded by farmland and protected open space bucolic, but an urban planning disaster. Officials at CSU originally proposed building the school adjacent to Ventura's poorest neighborhood; however, CSU gave up in the face of strenuous no-growth opposition. Sorry, but Ventura as a whole and tens of thousands of students, teachers and CSUCI workers would be better off if CSU had jammed the project down the throat of local naysayers. Instead, that part of Ventura continues to struggle, and everyone has to drive to a remote campus.

With an ongoing state budget deficit and an aging populace, California is unlikely to build many new college campuses in the foreseeable future. We do continue to build transportation facilities, though, and here's where I have an example of a government project's positive contribution to community livability.

In October, Caltrans completed a major upgrade to Highway 44 in Redding. The agency built a new bridge over the Sacramento River, widening the highway from four lanes to six. It rebuilt an intersection, modified a few ramps and built a new onramp. It also constructed a 1.1-mile-long, 12-foot-wide multi-use path along the highway. The path takes people from an existing bike path next to the convention center and the city's biggest museum to the retail center of town. Most importantly, it provides a safe route over the river and under the freeway, both of which pose barriers to cyclists and pedestrians in Redding. People have filled the path since the moment it opened. Much of the use is recreational, but I've also seen cyclists who are obviously commuting, as well as people carrying sacks of groceries. Caltrans recognized the latent demand.

If California is truly going to shift to a more sustainable style of development, it needs to review its mistakes (poorly situated college campuses) and its successes (non-motorized paths that provide connectivity), and then build public facilities accordingly. Maybe we could start by hiring some progressive young planners that our public universities are graduating. 

Paul Shigley

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Josh Stephens on The Urban Mystique at SPUR: January 19
On Tuesday, January 19, please join CP&DR Contributing Editor Josh Stephens and our friends at SPUR for a conversation about his book The Urban Mystique and the ineffable complexities that make all cities wondrous, maddening, and fascinating.
Registration: https://www.spur.org/events/2021-01-19/urban-mystique

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