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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wanted: A College Downtown

The above-ground entrance to Drake State's downtown classrooms.  (Photo credit: James Vandiver)
On September 8th, the state Board of Education will vote on a plan presented by Calhoun Community College to purchase 51 acres in Research Park in order to move at least part of its Huntsville campus from its current confines on Wynn Drive to two new buildings with "ample parking." As I was reading this, I thought to myself: "They should move downtown!"* And here's why.

I challenge you to find me a successful downtown without a significant college presence nearby. Chattanooga has UTC. Nashville has Vanderbilt. Savannah has SCAD. Colleges can be major anchors to a city's downtown, bringing a large workforce and a young, urban-friendly 24-hour population that are needed to attract retail and restaurants to the core.

Some of you may recall that Drake State moved some of its classes downtown to the basement of the Times Building. While that was a valiant effort, it hasn't packed the bars and restaurants in the city center as originally hoped, and the adjacent parking lot is only half-full most days. If a college were to make a significant impact downtown, it will have to be highly visible in terms of location and the number of students.

The most logical college to move downtown would be Calhoun, considering they have been looking for a permanent home for nearly twenty years. Their Huntsville campus is located in a former manufacturing facility shared with Sci-Quest, and with over 7,000 students has outgrown that space. The rest of the colleges here (UAH, A&M, Oakwood, and Drake) have established campuses and could not feasibly move a significant amount of their facilities, though I would welcome an expansion of Drake State's downtown presence.**

Moving Calhoun and/or Drake State would bring significant numbers of students and faculty downtown during the day, but because neither school has students who live on campus, it wouldn't help solve one of the issues with our current downtown-- the lack of a residential population that sticks around after 5. One solution to this is to develop student apartments that would cater to students of the three four-year colleges, with frequent transit service between city center and their main campuses, among other amenities catered towards college students (a library/study hall, entertainment room, convenience store).

A map of potential college campus sites in and around downtown. (Map: Google; Illustration by James Vandiver)
Where would a high-visibility college campus be located downtown? The old Stone Middle (and its surroundings in West Downtown) is the first to come to mind. It's an academic building in a neighborhood that is ripe for redevelopment, and a college would be the perfect anchor. Other sites include four public housing projects (other than Councill Court) that surround downtown and are slated for redevelopment--Butler Terrace, Lincoln Homes, Searcy Homes, and Sparkman Homes (see map). They provide large tracts of land without having to go through multiple landowners. And while none are as large as the 50+ acres that will be bought in Research Park, as an urban campus, you're less likely to waste as much land on "ample" surface parking.

*I have heard before that Calhoun planned a downtown campus in the late 1980s, though I have never been able to independently verify that. 

**I understand there is some political conflict between Drake State and Calhoun about the latter "encroaching" on the former's "territory." However, this is not a political blog, and as such, I will leave that issue to other media. The downtown campus idea can work for either Drake or Calhoun, or both... The more, the merrier!