Campus balances construction with city structure

Samuel Yang

The University of Alabama campus is no stranger to ongoing construction and development. But for the University, development is about more than just expanding the edges of campus. As elements of campus disappear, appear and transform, the infrastructure underlying the landscape must change too. And while Tuscaloosa is widely known as an SEC college town, UA infrastructure development is really a tale of two cities.

John McConnell, Director of the City of Tuscaloosa’s Planning and Development Services, said his work with the city involves engaging the community to devise and to update a master plan that guides infrastructure development. While the city relies on private development to follow rules, it does exercise some control through a Planning Commission, which McConnell likens to the UA Board of Trustees.

(See also “Trustees approve more construction projects“)

“[The University of Alabama] has to create an environment that’s sort of like a mini-community for its students,” he said. “The University does it all themselves. I’m not sure we’re all that much different. It’s how we get there.”

Dan Wolfe, University Planner, said the Board of Trustees is part of an approval process that involves four rounds of design plan review from “a long list of UA Departments.”

“All new construction is guided by the UA Architectural Design Guide which was part of the 2007 Campus Master Plan,” he said. “The Facilities Department works close with the design team, UA Board of Trustees and the end users of the facility to create a plan that is functional, green sensitive and meets design guild criteria while staying within budget.”

The University currently abides by the 2012 Master Plan, an update of the 2007 Master Plan that includes a plan for the Bryce Property acquired in 2010.

(See also “Construction underway at UA“)

“The main concern with the 2012 planning effort was how best to develop a long range plan that would accommodate growth in enrollment at the Capstone and at the same time respect our traditions, culture and overall look and feel of the campus,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said the City and University have a very good working relationship. However, the city’s power to influence planning essentially ends at campus boundaries.

Since the University is a state institution, it is not subject to regulation from the city, which is true for every state.

“They are expected to pretty much always do the right thing, do the just thing and not cause harm to the community,” McConnell said. “The University has always been a good institutional partner. They’ve never abused that standing in the community. They’ve always done the right thing.”

He said as a courtesy, the University in the past filed permits for new development, but the permits never came with services beyond inspection, which has recently been moved in-house.

“Mainly, [the permits are] a coordination thing between us and them,” he said. “They’re building something that fits into a larger system.”

Control of that larger system highlights the differences between the city and the campus. McConnell said the city must deal with both public and private players, which necessitates zoning regulations and incentives.

“You’ve got two major parties working towards an entity achieving the intent of a master plan,” he said.

On campus, the process is simpler. Since the University owns all of its property, it can exercise control over its community, streamlining the process.

(See also “University needs to take students into account during construction decisions“)

“A university campus, while being similar to a city, has a very different mission. UA’s singular goal is to educate our students,” Wolfe said. “A city has a much more diverse constituency to attempt to please and must do so using zoning and other means.”

Another issue the University anticipates is overcrowding, and Wolfe said senior leaders review and identify options for new building locations.

“During this period of unprecedented growth, this has happened on a very regular basis and many new buildings have been erected while others have been renovated and reassigned,” he said. “In some cases buildings reach the end of their useful life due to architectural constraints or structural issues. In those cases it is often best to raze the buildings to make way for future growth.”

Robert Lanoux, associate principal architect at Ward Scott Architecture, said contractor selection is subject to state law requirements and often proceeds via public bid, but material selection falls under UA discretion. The firm is responsible for the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility and the Lakeside, Ridgecrest South and Riverside Residential Communities.

“The Design Guidelines identify materials that are important to the character and performance of buildings on campus,” he said. “For instance, building exteriors are required to use brick and limestone when building in the Central Realm of the Campus.”

Lanoux said the longevity of campus buildings depends primarily on maintenance.

“UA has trained, full-time staff that are focused on building maintenance, so I believe that their results are better than most. Product and system warranties are an indication of longevity as well,” he said. “For instance, typical roof system used on UA buildings may have 20 to 40 year warranties while some window systems may have 5 to 15 year warranties. So, again, proactive maintenance is the key.”

Ultimately, he said, additions to campus hinge on the purpose of the new building.

“The main consideration is responding to the stated needs and wants of the University for the particular project,” Lanoux said. “That being said, the University has spent a lot of effort over the years compiling design guidelines and a master plan which serve to ensure that new buildings fit appropriately on campus. We work very closely with UA staff and users to tailor building design to the functional needs and to make sure that it fits into the fabric of the UA Campus.”

While the fabric of city and campus seem to develop separately, connections between the two exist. McConnell serves on the Master Planning Commission, and Wolfe said the city and the University have “collaborated on many projects over the years.”

“The city is working towards aligning their comprehensive planning effort updates with our master planning process so that there will be more synergy in both plans,” he said.

And like the city, the University must look beyond buildings when it comes to accommodating students. While students may have to leave the sidewalk for construction now, they may soon find new spots on campus where they don’t mind stopping. Wolfe said students can look forward to the growth of park-like common spaces similar to those found in the Shelby Quad or Marr’s Spring.

“One thing we have done related to functional landscaping is to look around campus for opportunities to create great outdoor gathering spaces. We identify little-used locations where students pass through going to another location and design and install small park-like settings where students can congregate, relax and enjoy nature,” he said. “These small parks have been very successful.”