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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

Thinking of the Master Plan

UWM Maps Out its Future

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  How does a landlocked urban university expand? The question has vexed such institutions for centuries and has sometimes led to violent confrontations between town and gown. Columbia University recently marked the 40th anniversary of the uprising of 1968, which was spurred, in part, by the university's attempt to seize public land in nearby Morningside Park. Making this anniversary even more relevant was the fact that Columbia is once again venturing into neighboring Harlem-a move that has not pleased a number of that community's long-time residents. Other colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, find themselves facing tough community opposition to plans to expand their respective core campuses.

  In contrast, the recent announcement by UW-Milwaukee of its "Master Plan" for the long-term growth of the school aroused no public outrage. Much of this silence can be attributed to the fact that details of the plan, being prepared by the highly respected firms Hammel, Green and Abrahamson (Milwaukee) and Sasaki Associates (Watertown, Massachusetts), are scarce. The UW Board of Regents approved the $2 million needed to fund the creation of the plan less than a year ago, and the actual shape of the blueprint will not be known until approximately 2010, after close to two years of data collection and analysis.

  There have been no calls for UWM to seize property through eminent domain, and no announcements of blockbuster buildings that might overpower the general architectural aesthetic of the city's East Side. Without the details of how the finished Master Plan might look, there has been little reason for community members to view the university's plan with mistrust.

The Unveiling?

  A great deal of the credit for the relatively uneventful unveiling of UWM's Master Plan must be given to Hammel, Green, Abrahamson and Sasaki Associates. Their April 4 joint public presentation displayed a sensitivity to the complexities of urban life often missing in campus design and expansion plans. The two firms noted their commitment to "Fostering Stewardship and Sustainability" and found guidance in the words of former UWM Chancellor J. Martin Klotsche, who in 1965 noted that "The University located in the city must have a deep concern about the urban process, and use its resources to influence the character of urban life."

  This piece of advice also seems to have taken hold with current UWM administrators. Vice Chancellor Christy L. Brown, a key university point person for the Master Plan, said that the two firms were chosen because of their "ability to engage and communicate with various stakeholders" and their belief in a transparent and democratic planning process. On a formal level, community members will be invited to sit on the plan's Executive Leadership Plan.

  At the same time, the two firms will also hold a series of informal "listening sessions" in which such constituencies as students, neighborhood associations and local businesses can provide their thoughts on the developing Master Plan.

Beyond the Core Campus

  The chief challenge facing any plan will involve reconciling community concerns with the spatial realities of a campus that serves the needs of over 29,000 students on just 93 acres of space. Recently, UWM-through the creation of such facilities as Kenilworth Square, the Riverview dormitory, the Plankinton Building and the Great Lakes Research Facility-has seemed to embrace a sort of academic decentralization, allowing the school to physically develop away from its hemmed-in core campus area. There has also been talk of expanding into Wauwatosa and other suburbs. It will be interesting to see how the plan addresses both of these strategies.

  UWM's Chancellor Carlos Santiago has often noted that "Real estate doesn't drive decisions, partnerships do." This idea of partnership that has come to define the way the University views expansion, preferring to work with willing associates. How and where such future partnerships are struck may play a vital role in the final version of the Master Plan.

  One such partnership-with the Columbia-St. Mary's hospital system-may provide the first real test for the development of a coherent Master Plan. It's no secret that UWM has long coveted Columbia-St. Mary's Columbia campus adjacent to the university. When the hospital announced its plans to consolidate services at a new facility and close the Columbia campus by January 2010, the UW system immediately earmarked money towards purchasing the property (this funding has since been deferred).

  Columbia St. Mary's, however, plans to sell the property, in the words of Vice President Paul Westrick, "to the highest bidder." "Discussions," according to Westrick, "are going on with national and local developers," and the hospital system may use a well-known development group as an intermediary as they go through offers on the campus.

  The search for such a development group is now down to two finalists, and the hospital hopes to announce the winning firm within the next few months. How that firm envisions the future of this valuable piece of land-and where they see UWM as fitting into such a development strategy-will undoubtedly influence the shape and content of the school's vision.

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