Building Up

Building Up

by Kate Hawthorne Jeracki

Colorado State University is joining city leaders to accommodate an ever-growing population in Fort Collins. Here are the minds behind CSU’s urban emergence.

Growth. It’s a fact of life in Northern Colorado. How we plan for it now will determine how Colorado State University and the City of Fort Collins shape the region’s future.

With more than 158,000 residents at last count, there is no question that Fort Collins has grown into a small city. Repeatedly recommended by national publications as a desirable place to live, start a business, or retire, the Choice City is feeling the pressure of its own success. By 2030, Fort Collins could add nearly 50,000 new residents. By then, Larimer County will be well over 400,000.

This growth has been both steady and recent: the combined population of Larimer and Weld counties first surpassed the half-million mark less than a decade ago.

Compared to the increase in the CSU student population, the city’s growth has skyrocketed. Since 1970, the university has grown from 17,000 resident students to 27,500 in 2014. Over the same period, Fort Collins grew from 43,000 to 159,000 residents — over twice the growth rate of CSU.

The university is looking ahead to accommodate continued growth. The latest 10-year update to the state-mandated Campus Master Plan adopted by the CSU Board of Governors earlier this year envisions total enrollment of 35,000 — an additional 8,000 students above 2014-15 enrollment.

“The question isn’t whether we reach 35,000 students, but when,” said Amy Parsons, executive vice chancellor for the CSU System. “We anticipate another year of record enrollment for 2015-16, and have undertaken the current construction projects to assure that we continue to deliver a quality education to every student who comes to CSU.”

In addition to the physical master plan, CSU has developed a plan, which Parsons described as a “financial stress test” that maps out how the University can afford and accommodate anticipated growth, assuming state funding continues to decline.

“We looked at not only the physical plan to determine if new buildings are needed and where they go to stay true to the vision of the Master Plan, but also where the revenue for those buildings and their continuing operation and maintenance will come from,” Parsons explained. “We looked at all that, and whether we can accommodate 35,000 students on our current footprint, and our final plan holds up. However, as we grow toward 35,000, we’ll have to answer the question of whether we want to go beyond that. We can’t grow forever.”

But we can be smart about how we manage growth, and intentionally plan to use our existing space and other resources wisely and efficiently.

Guide the growth

When large numbers of people move to an area, whether they are drawn by economic opportunity or the potential for a better quality of life, cities inevitably form. And where there are cities, there are city planners, to help guide the growth.

Cameron Gloss, planning manager for Fort Collins, has worked in the City’s Planning Department since 2000, shortly after the latest community master plan, known as City Plan, was developed. One of the most important — and most contentious — items included in City Plan was a reaffirmation of Fort Collins’ growth management area boundary. Gloss described City Plan as a “major overhaul” of the city’s pattern of development.

“The process started in 1997 and was facilitated by urban planning pioneer Peter Calthorpe, who co-founded the Congress for New Urbanism,” Gloss said. “He laid out the principles of how increased density can work on a human scale, and the citizens who helped craft the plan realized that continuing to grow the city’s footprint outward was not sustainable.”

The guiding principle to “grow up, not out” has remained at the heart of the city’s planning efforts through three updates to City Plan. With suburban sprawl off the table, the alternative is strategically creating greater density, in housing, commercial activities, office and industrial space, concentrated in interconnected activity areas that preserve existing natural areas.

A major impact of increased density is already being felt in housing, where Gloss admits Fort Collins faces “significant deficiencies at certain price points,” especially with the growing numbers of students looking for places to live off campus.

“One of our biggest challenges is how to keep housing attainable for the people who work in Fort Collins,” he said.

The City considers the provision of housing a basic human need and commits between $1 million and $2 million per year to an array of affordable housing programs. But accurately representing the values of the community when it comes to growth can be tough.

“If you ask residents of Fort Collins what they think about urban sprawl, they don’t like it,” Gloss said. “If you ask what they think about greater urban density, they don’t like that, either.”

But this reaction is often based upon a misunderstanding of what increased density actually looks like. Jane Choi, co-founder of the Urban Lab at the Institute for the Built Environment at CSU, and a professor of landscape architecture, explained that there is good density and bad density. With good urban design, denser cities can provide improved quality of life and other benefits over the sprawling growth pattern that has been the norm in the U.S. since the middle of the last century.

“The American automobile culture fueled the move to the suburbs, but that’s just not sustainable,” she said. “Thoughtful infill development is the best way to preserve our natural resources, but it has to be planned correctly so the community can grow organically. A vibrant, livable city can’t be planned in one fell swoop, like a suburban subdivision; the disastrous urban renewal efforts of the 1960s proved that.”

The key is “good urban design,” which, according to Choi, includes a diversity of architecture, services within walking distance of residential areas, transit that connects activity centers efficiently, and plenty of green spaces where residents can connect with the natural world, all arranged around a denser city core.

University planners long ago adopted the tenet of growing up, not out, in large part because the city now surrounds the once-rural campus, giving it nowhere to sprawl if it wanted to. Executive Director of Facilities Management Steve Hultin pointed out that the university’s land is too precious not to build up.

“The goal is to create a campus environment where students can live and learn that reflects values they share, like sustainability and walkability, on our existing footprint,” he said.

The look and feel of the campus has evolved to keep pace with changing societal values, but remains true to the vision of Bill Morgan, president of CSU in the 1950s, said Fred Haberecht, assistant director of Facilities Management for CSU.

“When the GIs returned from World War II, campus enrollment surged to 3,800 and we had to throw up Quonset huts to house them all,” he said. “President Morgan started pushing for a bigger campus to accommodate 7,000 students by 1970, which the locals thought was a crazy number.”

The actual enrollment was closer to 17,000 by then, and some of the most iconic buildings on campus – Danforth Chapel, the Engineering Building, Rockwell and Allison halls – were in place. Then, as now, the challenge was finding a way to finance the buildings and develop the revenue stream to operate them. That’s why it has taken so long to implement parts of Morgan’s vision, which always included the open, green spaces that make the CSU experience special.

“When we talk about building greater density on campus, people tend to think that means more density everywhere,” Hultin said. “But we are really very careful to incorporate, and when we can, expand existing green spaces.”

With the Rocky Mountains rising to the west of campus, the definition of green spaces becomes even broader. Haberecht said maintaining the Great Green as open space allows campus to “borrow” the magnificent scenery. The full-length windows in the new Lory Student Center bring the mountains practically on campus, for example.

Park it

A good urban landscape is pedestrian friendly. In big cities with transit systems serving all parts of the metro area, and where space for parking individual cars is at a premium, it is not unusual for residents to abandon auto ownership altogether. Public transportation allows people to get out of their cars and onto the bus or train and then their own two feet for shopping, services, and other daily tasks.

CSU’s Campus Master Plan envisions faculty, staff and students choosing from a variety of transportation options for navigating to and around campus, be it a free shuttle, a bicycle, a longboard or a shared ride.

Aaron Fodge, director of alternative transportation at CSU, spends his days thinking about all the different ways people move from Point A to Point B. His department’s motto is “Reinventing the Wheel,” after all.

Through a close collaboration with the city, CSU students are riding transit in record numbers, making the university an integral part of the growth of the Transfort system to the benefit of the entire community, Fodge pointed out.

Anyone actively employed or registered for classes with a CSU RamCard ID can ride any city bus for no charge. This includes the MAX bus rapid transit service that runs the length of the north-south Mason Corridor with connections to regional buses to Loveland, Longmont and beyond. There are three MAX stops either on or adjacent to the main campus; Transfort’s Around the Horn shuttle provides regular service to on-campus destinations as well the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Science facilities on the South Campus on Drake Road.

“What we want to do is make sure all CSU students and employees have options of how to get to campus, and then complete what’s called ‘the last mile’ to their destination safely and conveniently,” Fodge said. “We’ve added electric vehicle charging stations as an option for those who drive, too.”

Fodge is particularly proud that 80 percent of CSU employees live in Fort Collins. Seventy percent of those live within a half-mile of a bus route, and 53 percent live within a quarter-mile of a free ride to work. “You won’t see that in Boulder,” he said.

There are plans to make taking public transportation more convenient, including secured bike lockers operated by the RamCard at MAX stations and guaranteed emergency rides home for employees who take the bus or any form of alternative transportation, as well as ZipCar subscriptions. Fodge said his department is also working on options for employees whose schedules require them to be on campus when the buses aren’t running.

In the Campus Master Plan, the Academic Corridor is completely closed to motorized traffic, and there is no longer a direct route across campus for cars. Driving from Pitkin to Laurel on Meridian has gone the way of cutting hay on the Oval.

“Meridian is going to remain closed to cars, and you can already see the benefit if you are by the Academic Village when classes change,” Fodge said. “Without being split by a busy road full of cars, the student center, the rec center and the residence halls are all connected by sidewalks and bike trails around the Great Green that are filled with students. In fact, we’re starting to see bike congestion, and we’re planning to add another 3,000 bike parking spaces, too.”

One aspect of urbanization that afflicts American cities from coast to coast is what to do with the individual cars that still bring people to town in the first place, and neither CSU nor the city of Fort Collins is immune from this aspect of growth.

To open up the center of campus to bikes and pedestrians, parking is being moved to the periphery, with the Around the Horn shuttle to take passengers to their destination. While several surface lots close to the center of campus are going away, new parking structures will create several hundred places to stow an automobile — by 2017.

While Fodge is an ardent supporter of welcoming the community to campus and making it as easy as possible to get around without a car, he understands the financial reality that all of these projects, from the free Transfort rides to more bike racks, are supported by revenues from parking. The irony is that as fewer people park, the higher the price of parking permits becomes.

“Things have to become uncomfortable before people will change their behavior,” said Josie Plaut, associate director of the Institute for the Built Environment at CSU, which also houses the Urban Lab. “When it’s easier to ride my bike than drive, I might think about living closer to campus, even if I think I don’t want to move into a place with greater density.”

Parking is looming as a greater issue off campus as well, especially with new apartment buildings along the MAX line. Residents in neighborhoods adjacent to campus are now required to display permits for overnight on-street parking, and the proposal to install parking meters in Old Town has once again resurfaced in city planning discussions.

Making connections

Someone once said the future isn’t what it used to be. Plans are proposed, debated, implemented (or not), evaluated, and revised to keep pace with the changing needs and desires of society. On campus, that means creating spaces where students want to live and learn – and this generation of students wants more urban amenities. Fewer bring cars to campus, and they have embraced the concept of density as a good thing.

“In the ‘70s, we put a lot of time and effort into building individual quiet study carrels in the library,” Facilities Management’s Hultin said. “Now nobody wants to study in the library; they go to a coffee shop. So we are incorporating more open social areas, where groups can study and work together. Even in the library, they can get a cup of coffee, too.”

As the campus adds more options that reflect increased urbanization, the city is working to incorporate the university and students into civic life around common issues, such as community health and wise use of natural resources.

“There are lots of factors that have to be carefully balanced – residential, retail, natural areas, transportation – and we have to be really clear about what should be where,” said Plaut. “When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about more than the environment; we’re talking about mobility, livability and social equality. It’s a more sophisticated way of looking at planning, and as planners, we have the opportunity to both respond to and drive what the community wants through collaboration. “

City planner Gloss agrees, pointing out that despite a public perception of conflict over the new stadium and the continuing challenges of parking and noise and all the issues surrounding off-campus student housing, at the staff level university and city planners have a good working relationship.

“We have a good rapport with CSU, especially the Facilities staff, and we worked closely on the West Central Area Subarea Plan,” he said. That plan, adopted by City Council in 2015, provides guidance for development in the neighborhoods surrounding the main campus, bounded by Prospect Road, College Avenue, and Shields and West Elizabeth streets.

“We also collaborate to help solve the problems that impact the larger community, like with the pedestrian underpass at Centre Avenue and Prospect that connects to the Aggie Village North project,” Gloss continued. “That will become the south gateway to campus, and we determined that an underpass was the safest way to move pedestrians and bicycles through the area. It is most important to work together on the edges of campus, where the city and the university are growing closer and sharing the same challenges with infrastructure.”

Planning for some pretty big infrastructure challenges is well underway, with the new on-campus stadium breaking ground and the new medical center set to go up at the corner of College and Prospect. The Urban Lab’s Choi sees the stadium as a huge potential benefit to both the city and the university by bringing social and economic activity back to an area that is already urbanized, rather than pushing it to the outskirts, like Hughes.

The medical center will eventually replace Hartshorn Health Center on campus as the primary provider of health care for students. It will also contain medical offices and services for the general public.

The planning process for the medical center was a “really open discussion,” according to Vice Chancellor Parsons.

“We had lots of people around the table working through the concepts, not just Facilities, but also students, faculty and staff, representatives from the city, and community members,” she said. “We looked at the whole range of issues, from sustainability to transportation, and when we came to a decision, the recommendations went to the President’s Cabinet and on to President Tony Frank for a final decision.”

When the Health Network moves to the new medical center in 2017, Hartshorn will be empty. Parsons said the plans for that part of campus are still taking shape, and the discussions are following the same open format.

“There is some really creative thinking going on about revitalizing that part of campus,” she said. “It’s a really fun opportunity to have.”

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