Embrace spontaneity in urban development

Credit: Kathryn Kukla/Production Manager Credit: Kathryn Kukla/Production Manager
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

To students and faculty who have been around Carnegie Mellon for a few years, the complexity of the layout of our dear Steel City is only just becoming apparent. By now, we’ve gotten lost on the North Side, gotten turned around in Penn Circle, and taken the bus too far across the Homestead Grays Bridge one too many times. We’re finally getting a sense of which river is which, and which neighborhoods butt up against our own.

To first-years, let me try to break it down. The main campus is in Oakland. You probably live in Oakland, so that makes it easy. But maybe you live in Squirrel Hill. Your older friends might live in Shadyside. And last weekend, your parents took you shopping at Target at the Waterfront. Now, the Waterfront — that’s in Homestead.

Now, with potential new development that the university’s president, Jared Cohon, e-mailed the student body about over the summer, local geography may become even more complicated. According to an Official Communications e-mail sent out to the campus community on June 30, Carnegie Mellon has reached an agreement to purchase three acres of land, as well as a new building, right around the intersection of Forbes Avenue and South Craig Street. (To the first-years: That’s right near the Starbucks and Subway.) The university’s arrangement includes the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF) building right before Phi Bar on the north side of Forbes when one approaches from campus, a parking lot behind the building, and a lot in Junction Hollow. In addition, the university plans to purchase the National City Bank building and property across the street from the GATF building.

That’s a significant amount of space that will have Carnegie Mellon’s stamp on it. Already on South Craig Street is the Quality of Life Technology Center, and the Mellon Institute and the Software Engineering Institute are close by. Besides these buildings that bear the official seal of Carnegie Mellon University, many other sites on the street are frequented by Carnegie Mellon students often enough that they bear more of an unofficial seal. Lulu’s, Kiva Han, and scattered outdoor gathering spaces on the street are recognized for their association with the school’s students, as well as are recognized by the students as a comfortable spot to frequent.

As part of this newspaper’s editorial board, I’ve written about this expansion before, as it was vaguely outlined in the Campus Design & Facilities Development’s master plan for the university’s development. While not implied in Cohon’s June 30 e-mail, there have been whispers on campus of the university administration’s desire to shroud South Craig Street with plaid, burgundy, and white flags denoting Carnegie Mellon territory. Like Harvard Square, the retail area right around Harvard University in Boston, we could have our very own mini-city.

However, as part of the editorial board,I have argued that re-branding South Craig Street as an overly planned or organized offshoot of the university’s main campus up Forbes Avenue is undesirable. While it is unquestionably important for the university to expand physically as its educational presence expands globally, the potential for natural, unplanned growth on the part of the university must remain. All buildings within walking distance of campus should not be educational; students need regular exposure to retail establishments that are officially unassociated with that which dominates the rest of our existence while we’re at school.

Moreover, I have to wonder: Can we really handle the extra layer of confusion? We’re on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, in Oakland, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It’s North Oakland, really. Or is it East? Is there an East Oakland? Are the intramural fields in Squirrel Hill? If we own most of South Craig Street, will we be on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, in the Carnegie Mellon mini-city, in Oakland, in Pittsburgh, in Allegheny County, in Pennsylvania, in the Midwest-slash-East Coast?

Aside from this argument, though, I am encouraged and excited by this development. Cohon and his administration are aware of the university’s place — and not just its physical one — in the city, and are interested in expanding and continuing to work hard. Moreover, he is doing more as our president than simply focusing on and worrying about the budget issue. (First-years: Don’t worry, there’s no budget crisis... But if you’d like to donate now to the school — just five small dollars! — that’d be cool. The money would be put to use. Probably for grass seed to rejuvenate the ground once the white tent in the middle of the Mall is removed following your Convocation.)

Money makes me nervous. I’m only just starting to become financially responsible, and that’s only because I now have what feels like a trillion graduate student loans to manage and bills to pay. (You’d think sass and wit alone would pay my way through the Heinz College, but alas, my words can only carry me so far. As in, not very.) I appreciate that Cohon mentioned the financial impact of these property purchases on and around South Craig Street in his June 30 e-mail, and I understand his need to present himself and the university as fiscally responsible, especially because the money world is a less than ideal place right now (so I’m learning). I think we’re all just going to have to trust Cohon that the university won’t shut down as a result of this proposed expansion — none of us appreciate irony that much.

I agree with Cohon, too, that “the strategic value of this land to the university is unquestionable.” But I do have to question what is going to be put on that land, and why. Yes, we need growth. That “why” is simple. But surely, the fact that there is so much space for development involved in this purchase will invite a lot of chefs into the kitchen. Many voices will want to be heard as to the direction of our school’s growth: investors who are funding it, students who are living in it, faculty who are working in it. But despite all of these chefs likely trying to influence Cohon’s decision as to what specific development takes place, it shouldn’t be over-calculated. If the school tries to plan out exactly what function the space should have: who will — or should — use it and when, what colors it should be, and who should feel like they belong, then the freedom and creativity that students need to be a bit normal around here could be squandered.

Spontaneity in education is great; spontaneity in urban development is even better.