Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Some "real" colleges don't have plans like this...

Northwest Arkansas Community College has really impressed me since I moved here two years ago (nearly to the day, by the way.) NWACC stands so far above many community colleges that I've ever had any experience with, and it seems that I hear things every day that elevate my opinion. They've partnered with local businesses (yes, like Wal-mart) and do workforce training to equip businesspeople to be better trained for their jobs. They've had supplier fairs to provide employment opportunties and workforce training.

elevation of new student center courtesy of NWACC

They've made a concentrated effort to recruit and bring in hispanic folks from the area, also doing their best to educate some of the underserved groups by most colleges. They've lined up their curriculum with the U of A really well. They have special scholarships they've enacted for military students. They've radically increased diversity at the school. And they're continually doing things to better serve the area where they're located.

Bottom line, they've shown the kind of flexibility required to make a community college a true "community" college.

But I think the best decision they've made in the last few years got very little publication. It was big news, but it seemed to me that no one really grasped how significant the decision was. NWACC created and approved a long-range facilities land use plan, charting the future all the way out to 2015. If you're not familiar with where they're located, they sit nestled up against I-540 on the Rogers side. The campus is basically all one building right now, along with one building that is used for a lot of community use, vocational classes, and other stuff.

With the approval of the new master plan, they set in motion a plan to become a real college campus. Community colleges can't avoid the fact that they're almost always commuter colleges. But that doesn't mean that you can design a memorable campus, designed around the needs of the student walking from place to place, rather than the typical suburban auto-centric design.

After all, who visited a bunch of four-year colleges and made their college choice based on the fact that the campus looked like crap and wasn't walkable at all. "That looks great! Everyone drives from buidling to building and all the public spaces are completely paved over and forgettable! Woo hoo!"

So once again, NWACC has set themselves ahead of the rest of the pack. The campus will extend north from where it is now, as you can see in the below graphic, courtesy of NWACC. But rather than just plopping down buildings with parking lots all over the places, they're doing their best to relegate the cars to the edges of the college campus. They have two 1,000 space parking garages planned for the future campus, both of which are located near the edges of the campus. Once all the buildings are finished on the 2015 plan, they will have designed an enclosed campus quad in between the main buildings, where students can stroll across sidewalks and across grassy areas from class to class, just like their brethren down the road at the U of A.

I went to a community college in Atlanta during my senior year of high school. I deliberately didn't go to a campus nearer to my house because it was in an office park. Even the one that I went to farther away was still buildings mostly surrounded by parking. It didn't quite feel like a college campus when you had to walk from building to building. And that was a BIG community college with quite a bit of money.

Dr. Becky Paneitz, the president of NWACC, has deliberately set a course for NWACC that will set them apart from other community colleges of the same size in the area. She brags every chance she gets about the fact that the parking garages will be the first ones built in Benton County. And she's not just proud of it because they're the first; I think she's proud because she knows what effect concentrating the parking in two or three areas will have on the quality of the college's built environment.

The coolest part about the design is this: the old Arkansas Missouri railroad runs right through the center of campus. It's the line that went from Rogers to Bentonville, but now it's really only used by Mid-Continent Concrete in Bentonville. Normally, it would kind of cut campus in half, but they're going to raise up the land on each side a little bit, and put pedestrian bridges over the railroad, as well as the road that currently goes to the Shewmaker Center, so pedestrians will be separated from the road and railway below.

The NWACC and U of A officials have talked in the past about the idea of connecting the two campuses with a train. I don't know if that would ever happen, but the NWA light rail discussion has included the possible route along this old line that runs right through the middle of NWACC.

In a remarkable act of foresight and eternal optimism, if you look real close at that map, you can see that they've included a "train station" right along the railroad tracks. Imagine the possibilities that would open up for this once-small commuter school. Kids from all over NW Arkansas could hop on the light rail in Fayetteville, Elkins, Springdale, or Johnson and scoot north and jump off right between the student center and the beautiful carless grassy quad. There will always be just a certain number of parking spots. Imagine what that would do for the capacity of the school if everyone who went there didn't have to drive there?

Kudos to NWACC for smart planning, foresight, and a committment to creating a memorable place that is functional for cars and people.

I'm going to write more about the feasiblity of light rail in NW Arkansas, but I'll touch on that some other time.

read more: nwacc, regionalism, growth