Even as backhoes and bulldozers were revving their engines for one of the busiest construction seasons in decades, last spring the University administration proposed creating a new campus development plan. An article in Almanac, the University’s journal of record, called the initiative –tentatively scheduled to be finished by early 2000–the "next chapter" in the planning process begun with the Agenda for Excellence and cited as its primary purpose "to assure that the University’s physical environment fulfills the needs of its academic mission."

Dr. Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’73, the provost, who, along with Penn President Judith Rodin CW’66 and John Fry, executive vice president, signed the Almanac piece, says that the plan will "look at the campus from the point of view of best uses." What the plan won’t do, he and others are quick to point out, is assign space to a particular school or center or make specific decisions on capital projects or the commitment of resources. "The idea is to create a living plan that we can revisit every year, and against which we can benchmark our decisions–a broad plan of how the campus might evolve," says Barchi.

Two main objectives are cited in the proposal: The first is to look at how well the academic and scholarly environment meets the needs of faculty, students and staff for teaching, research and support services. This could include issues such as how teaching trends affect the use of academic space; common approaches to configuring office, research and classroom space; or the impact of technology on teaching methods and classroom use. The second area is described as "student, faculty and administrative life; neighborhood and community life; and campus amenities." This involves building on initiatives such as the college houses and hubs designed to create a more integrated living/learning environment. Three other areas that will be examined are how to make the most of Penn’s large number of historic buildings; how issues of access, circulation, transportation and service affect the physical environment; and maintenance and operations issues.

Six faculty-staff-student committees–one for each of the main topics, plus a steering committee chaired by Barchi–were appointed in April. "The idea is not to generate a plan from the top, [but] to accumulate as much wisdom as we can from the University community," he says. "So the committees were specifically put together to bring into the same room as broad a cut of representation as we possibly could." A series of public forums will also be held–probably one for each of the five topics–at which "anyone and everyone can say what they want and get into an open dialogue about these issues."

To act as "facilitator" in developing the plan, the University has brought in Olin Partnership, Ltd., a landscape architecture and urban design firm headed by Laurie Olin, practice professor in the Graduate School of Fine Arts. Members of the firm spent the summer interviewing school and University leaders; collecting data on existing buildings and their uses; and "helping to frame the issues and set the questions that the committees will want to deal with," says Barchi. The expectation is that committee meetings and the forums will be held in early fall, with committee work then continuing to develop a set of recommendations for consideration by the president and trustees.

"There is a timetable that is fairly aggressive and optimistically looks forward to completing the process by the end of the fall," says Barchi. "We would hope that by the beginning of the new year we would have at least an interim report. It may require more time than that to get the final report together."

Though he was appointed provost only last year, Barchi has been at Penn since 1968 as a student and faculty member. "The campus has changed incredibly over that period," he says. "Watching the campus grow has been a tremendous experience. It’s kind of like watching your kids grow up. You don’t really see the day-to-day changes as much as someone who goes away and comes back 25 years later and says, ‘What happened to my campus?’"

The current flurry of construction activity is the result of a confluence of several factors. "One is the relationship between the University and the community, which reached a nadir sometime in the past and has been dramatically improved lately, in large part due to the efforts and clear focus of the president on that issue," Barchi says. "And in that regard a number of the construction projects at the interface between the University and the community are designed to enhance the relationship both with the students and the community. That’s one kind of project that has been going on."

That all construction decisions, even the most "commercial" projects, are predicated on the academic mission of the University is a point that "bears repeating and emphasizing," Barchi notes. A project such as Sansom Common, besides providing retail opportunities for students and space for people visiting campus, "also provides a cash stream to support academic programs, which is not widely appreciated." Similarly, in addition to addressing student demand for more and varied venues for social interaction, the Sundance movie theater on 40th Street also offers "very specific educational opportunities in film, and programs that can be bridged between our fine-arts and theater programs and the commercial venture itself," he says.

"In other projects, there’s a life-cycle for a physical plant: We take a dorm and put students in it for 30 years–you’re going to have to do something eventually" to renovate it, Barchi notes. Along with that necessity comes "an opportunity to rethink the appropriateness of the structure. What may have been very appropriate 20-30 years ago may not be so today." This would apply to something like the Hamilton Village project, which will combine renovation of the high-rises with new low-rise construction to better support the college-house system.

Those are important, but "A major part of this resurgence is really the revitalization and enthusiasm that came with Judith Rodin and her academic planning–and what follows from that academic planning," Barchi says. "If we want to be one of the most research-intensive universities in the world and be one of the most attractive to students, then we must have a physical environment that supports the academic mission–and if we must have that, there are consequences to the building program."

The size of the capital program for construction makes campus planning all the more critical now, Barchi concludes. "We have to be very measured and very careful about the decisions that we make–because what we’re building now is going to put in place for the next 20-30 years a cycle of construction that our successors will have to live with and carry the University forward on."

 
 

 

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