U.K.’s planned new dormitory space for some 9000 students will have an enormous effect on our downtown, on nearby neighborhoods, the perception of Kentucky’s flagship institution, and on our whole community. ProgressLex is planning a series of posts that examine different aspects of this issue with the hope that a basically good idea, the provision of more student living space on campus, can be made even better.
This new construction, done in connection with an update of the university campus plan by Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts, raises a host of difficult but crucial questions.
Decisions made now will be with us for 50 or more years, and deserve full public discussion and careful thought.
- At one level, one could ask whether a 21st century university even needs new dorm space, given the astonishing growth of massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are transforming higher education worldwide, and may make brick and mortar dorms obsolete. Tom Friedman has enthusiastically endorsed these new MOOCS as a new development that is both desirable and inevitable. John Cirigliano made this point repeatedly during a recent U.K. meeting with city officials and representatives of the South Hill neighborhood that I attended. No one engaged John on this point, but maybe expensive new housing (more in an upcoming post) is unwise for the medium and long terms.
- The university has been much more open to public input to these decisions that it has been in the past. University officials have held a series of public meetings with local neighborhoods, and Sasaki is continuing to conduct open meetings to discuss various options. I have been very impressed by Sasaki; I trust their recommendations, but they can only recommend. One major wish of mine is that U.K. will listen carefully to Sasaki.
- Yet, public input has not been optimal. Last year, a coalition of the city and Lexington’s institutions of higher learning invited Omar Blaik, a national expert on town-gown issues, to prepare a preliminary report on how best to maximize town-gown synergies. Blake’s chief recommendation was the creation of an “Anchor Council” where all of these players could meet regularly. By not working with this Council, and choosing not to hire Blaik to work with Sasaki, UK lost one more opportunity to engage fully with the community, and develop the best possible plan.
There are many other questions, some of which will be addressed specifically in upcoming posts. Are the design qualities and the construction materials good enough that the university and its students will look back on the dorms with admiration and respect 50 years from now? Is there adequate parking for the students soon to occupy new space on the north end of campus, or will student parking overflow into nearby neighborhoods? Will the rents of the new dorm spaces be affordable? Are the new buildings as sustainable as they can be? Will the university demolish important historic buildings, particularly those designed by Ernst Johnson, perhaps the best architect practicing in Lexington during the first half of the twentieth century? The university may well contract out all its food services. Can or will a for-profit firm maintain the outstanding commitment to locally sourced food that UK food services has developed with such effort, as outlined in a great article by Linda Blackford? All of these questions are critical, and deserving of full public scrutiny. Stay tuned for more discussion, and PLEASE join the discussion with your comments!!