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July 22, 2010

Putting ‘community’ into community college campuses

  • Community colleges are updating master plans to make more room for public space.
    Schacht Aslani Architects


    The role of community colleges is rapidly changing as a result of the current economic climate and continually shifting technological and instructional trends. Here in Washington, some two-year schools are also beginning to offer baccalaureate degree programs as the result of a 2005 legislative initiative.

    As community colleges evolve to accommodate these changes, it is critical to the long-term viability of the institution that facilities are developed in alignment with the established campus master plan. The master plan serves as a tool to facilitate change in a way that assures institutional continuity specific to each institution’s mission and vision.

    As the leader of the master planning efforts for these three campuses, Schacht Aslani Architects discovered that the key to maintaining, and in some cases creating, institutional identity lies in the detailed evaluation of the context specific to each institution and the careful integration of new projects with the campus master plan.

    The Washington Association of Community and Technical Colleges (WACTC) Instruction Commission recently published nine guiding principles for the future of community college facilities. Many of these principles focus on the importance of community spaces on campus — places that provide an opportunity for students and faculty to interact outside the classroom.

    Rendering by Studio 216 [enlarge]
    North Seattle Community College’s former Technology Building is being renovated and expanded to create two new facilities. One of them, Thornton Creek Hall, shown here, will have a student center that opens into a central courtyard.

    The guiding principles also call for new, remodeled and renovated structures to be analyzed and evaluated in the context of the campus master plan, with a particular focus on balancing the need for flexible spaces with the need for program-specific spaces. Most community college campuses do not have a great deal of flexible community space, but recent master planning initiatives and capital development projects are beginning to reflect the changes envisioned by the WACTC.

    The three campuses discussed below illustrate different ways in which the master plan, when developed through a careful reading of the campus context, can be used to guide physical change in a way that facilitates community building on campus.

    N. Seattle Community College

    North Seattle Community College is located in an urban area designated for high-density development. In 2005, the college began the process of updating its major institutional master plan and developing a new campus master plan.

    The campus, which was constructed almost entirely in the 1970s, is composed of a monolithic concrete superstructure, which provided a rigid context with which to work from a master planning perspective.

    As originally designed, the college environment was not welcoming and lacked public space for students. Providing opportunities for people to gather and create a sense of community was one of the strongest needs voiced by students, faculty and staff during the master planning process.

    Redevelopment of the college’s open spaces is critical in responding to this need. The need for a campus center became a key component of the college’s campus master plan and guided the planning process.

    The campus master plan identifies an opportunity to develop the existing central courtyard into a gathering place for students that can function as a campus plaza and center of activity. The building spaces adjacent to the courtyard are not currently visually accessible, nor do they serve an adequate mix of public functions.

    As future development occurs on the campus, the college can work to ensure that the central courtyard is surrounded with shared spaces to support activities that attract campus users to gather, interact and collaborate, creating a critical mass of people and activity.

    Shoreline Community College

    Shoreline Community College is located north of Seattle and is sited on a wooded bluff among neighboring residential areas.

    The campus comprises 25 buildings that are almost all independent one-story structures with external circulation and little non-programmatic space. While the beautifully landscaped campus setting and the uniformity of the buildings create an aesthetically pleasing environment, the organization of the facilities and their extreme spatial efficiency do little to accommodate shared community space on campus.

    The college began its current master planning process in 2008. One of the key objectives was to improve student wayfinding and encourage interaction among all members of the community by providing a variety of communal indoor and outdoor spaces while respecting the character of the existing campus.

    Images by Schacht Aslani Architects [enlarge]
    Chester Avenue is the north-south spine for Olympic College’s Bremerton campus.

    While the scope of change recommended by the master plan presents a challenge to the college in terms of funding and implementation, it also provides the college with an opportunity to reorganize its campus in a way that provides needed space for students to study, gather and interact between classes.

    The greatest challenge to the development of community spaces on the campus is the scattered nature of its buildings and their lack of connection and orientation to one another. The campus master plan calls for new buildings with public lobbies and activity spaces that delineate major routes of pedestrian circulation on campus and promote visibility of public uses.

    Although there are currently no projects being built on campus, the master plan provides the college with the necessary guidance to accommodate future change in a way that promotes campus community.

    Olympic College

    Olympic College’s Bremerton campus is the only public institution of higher education in its region. As such, it tends to attract a young, community-oriented student body. It also offers one of eight pilot baccalaureate degrees in the state’s community college system through its nursing program, causing a recent influx of traditional, full-time students who desire to spend a full day on campus.

    The campus master plan would transform the road into a pedestrian street to unify the campus with community space.

    The college needs to provide commensurate student services and amenities in order to support its student body. A 2006 update to the campus master plan recognized this need and sought to enhance the campus community and collegiate identity.

    The college grew incrementally from a technical school that was once part of the local K-12 system into a component of the state’s network of community colleges, and its piecemeal growth is reflected in its physical layout.

    City streets run through the urban campus, and buildings were not designed or oriented to form a cohesive whole. The campus lacked a strong identity and was not able to provide the types of community spaces needed by its increasing student population.

    However, the existing organization of the site presents an opportunity to create a stronger sense of community and identity on the campus. The reorganization of the site proposed by the campus master plan is broad in scope and includes street vacations, land acquisition and building replacement.

    The campus is organized around the central spine of Chester Avenue, a portion of which has been vacated, but part of which currently remains as a city street running through campus. The campus master plan seeks to strengthen the organization of the campus by transforming this spine into a true pedestrian street, internal to campus, that can serve as a center for the campus community.

    Time to rethink plans

    Progress toward building campus community space has been minimal due to the historical context in which campuses have developed. Built up slowly over time and often tailored to commuter students, community college campus planning has traditionally been focused more on vehicular accessibility and providing adequate parking spaces than on creating community spaces or collegiate identity.

    Through our experience in working with three distinctly different community colleges, we have found that the solution to promoting the creation of gathering spaces varies from campus to campus. In each case, clues can be taken from the existing character and context of the campus to inform a master plan that provides the spaces needed by the campus community.

    Many community college facilities have reached an age at which they require either significant renovation or replacement, and institutions have updated their master plans to guide the change that will occur as a result. The need for a campuswide rethinking of the nature of public space at community colleges derives from the recent increase in enrollment demand at two-year institutions as well as the expanded range of degree options available to community college students. Both types of change require community space to support a successful institution.

    Katherine Idziorek has a background in both architecture and urban planning and works on master planning projects at Schacht Aslani Architects.

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