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UC Magazine

Creating a campus 'community'


Illustration/courtesy of Hargreaves Associates

By John Bach

Drive down Main Street of America's thriving small towns, and you'll notice a few common traits. Life is simple. Life is convenient. And life is everywhere. MainStreet is that bustling stretch where residents run their morning errands, share lunch-time meals and socialize throughout the evening. It is the place to see and be seen.

Now think of the University of Cincinnati as its own community. Though UC certainly has the population to make up its own town, it lacks the social energy of less populated communities. It lacks that bustling stretch of MainStreet. When classes are over, students get in their cars and drive home. Even dorm residents head off campus to grab a bite and relax with friends. UC on afternoons and weekends can look more like a ghost town than a college town. There is no common draw. No unifying reason for people to stick around.

UC's latest update to the Master Plan aims to change that. Up until now, the massive transformation of campus has involved building academic facilities, converting land into open green space and developing a pedestrian-friendly university. With those goals significantly complete, administrators have locked onto the fourth imperative of the Master Plan: "Quality of Campus Life and Student Services."

Last year the UC board of trustees committed to improving quality of life for students when it approved the largest infrastructure project in the history of the university. Appropriately named, the MainStreet project (slated to cost in the $200 millions and funded mostly by increased student fees) is a five-year undertaking that will result in a vibrant corridor running diagonally through the heart of West Campus, beginning near McMicken Hall and ending at the new Campus Green.

When current buildings are reconstructed, new buildings are erected and the pedestrian way is finished, the heart of campus life will beat along MainStreet. Lined with several new dining options, retail shops, suite-style student housing, cafes, top-of-the-line recreation facilities and modern offices for student organizations, MainStreet is a bold move by administrators to attract students and keep them on campus around the clock.

"It is not unlike trying to enliven a downtown," says Marc Petullo, an architect from UC's campus planning office. "You have to have services that are necessary and convenient to people. You have to provide places for people to live, to breathe. In essence, that is what we are doing here on campus."

University architect Ron Kull says the key to building a MainStreet that would rejuvenite campus life was approaching the project from a private-sector point of view.

"We were suffering from an institutional mentality," he admits. "Now we have brought a commercial perspective to campus. You really have to think just the way the private sector does. Our students are sophisticated. Why bring them on a campus with this old kind of fuddy-duddy stuff? You have got to give them the kinds of things they are used to."

Our students are sophisticated. Why bring them on a campus with this old kind of fuddy-duddy stuff?

Administrators consider the project a matter of necessity and survival if UC intends to attract and retain top quality students, students who expect the complete "college experience," one that fulfills educational, social, leisure and recreational needs.

"We came to one inescapable conclusion," says Mitchell Livingston, vice president for student affairs and human resources. "Not only are we incomplete in terms of the quality and quantity of campus life and student service offerings, we are also at serious risk of losing students to our competition."

The project is designed to unify the community by creating countless more places for people to interact, places that nurture the educational process. "MainStreet is designed to satisfy the needs of students, faculty and staff over a longer period of time by offering the kind of amenities that are necessary to keep them here," Kull says. "Food, entertainment, retail and recreation -- all those things make you want to stay on campus longer."

Though the entire MainStreet project will not be finished until 2005, major portions will be unveiled in phases. The new student union, for instance, is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2003. The UC community will sample even more immediate benefits of MainStreet, however, as temporary facilities are completed this year. Six large pavilions are going up around campus to house displaced offices and to serve as dining and events venues.

The temporary "sprung structures" offer the same amenities as standard brick-and-mortar buildings. The dining pavilion, for example, has a skylight and a planting trough with 20-foot bamboo trees and large colorful banners that boast of UCís last 100 years of heritage.

"The goal is not just to provide temporary spaces, but to go beyond that and provide the campus community an improvement over the existing facilities and options our current student union offers," says Niraj Dangoria, director of campus planning. "The underlying principle in all of this is to bring the benefits of MainStreet to the student now and not four years down the line."