Urbanism in College Towns

A college is the best thing for a community have in its backyard, noted Carleton College President Steve Poskanzer soon after his arrival in Northfield in 2010. Northfield, of course, has two.

The city’s character and development pattern have certainly been shaped by Carleton College on the east side; St Olaf on the west with the historic downtown and Northfield’s oldest residential neighborhoods in the middle. Two small colleges could be a doubly good deal for a small city like Northfield looking to plan and invest wisely to build a walkable, bikeable, economically prosperous town which is also just a darn good place to live and work.

American Institute for Economic Research publishes an annual ranking of the cities offering the best “college experience” while acknowledging college towns are “also vibrant places for businesses to open, tourists to visit and people to live.” Livability takes this a step further to note “a university’s off-campus impact can also shape a town’s character and keep people there for a lifetime.” And, the walkable neighborhoods with high quality of life also make college towns great places to retire.

Carleton aerial

Northfield’s east side neighborhood

Northfield’s east side neighborhood is its oldest residential area bordering the historic downtown with a strong, grid street pattern, older homes mixed with some newer infill, and the former high school/middle school now renovated and expanded as Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity. Indeed, Carleton’s neighborhood is just the sort of walkable, high quality traditional residential development pattern streets.mn writers praise.

Yet, Carleton has expanded south into the neighborhood through piecemeal acquisition of residential property south of its core campus plus the footprint of the Weitz Center leapfrogging a few blocks south. Many homes have been renovated for office use which both changes the character of the neighborhood and, relative to the buildings on the core campus, creates a low density campus arm through the center of the neighborhood.  Recently,  Carleton has undertaken a strategic planning process which includes facilities planning for “The optimal long-term (50-year) overall layout of the campus to “make the best use of its available space and work to lower the operating and maintenance costs of its existing and new physical plant.” Carleton’s presentation to the community shows the College has little grasp of how the campus is interlaced with the neighborhood and how it could think more boldly to develop its campus in ways which could be more efficient for the College and make the Northfield neighborhood an even better place for the College and residents.

Does Carleton need more space?  Or does it need to develop the land it already owns more strategically?

Carleton future map

Carleton’s future “plan”

Where to grow: While Northfield limits Carleton’s expansion to the south, Carleton constrains the City of Northfield’s expansion to the north and east because of its main campus and the Arboretum.  As a result, both City and College are deeply interested in that interface. From a city perspective, continued expansion to the south in the same pattern is not desirable. Carleton infiltrates one of Northfield’s most valuable residential areas and has begun to move into the downtown commercial area. Continued loss of property in these areas erodes the character of the neighborhood as well threatening to erode the city’s tax base (the threat to downtown – Northfield’s most valuable land per acre – is especially potent). Carleton’s historic habit of acquisition and renovation of residential property undermines the city’s ability to plan and regulate as well as lacking transparency for neighbors. Plus, Carleton has some prime access to MN 19 on the north edge of its campus.

Density: Completely missing from the planning documents is careful consideration of the pattern of development. Although land is limited, the College’s current development pattern at its southern edge (and especially in the Weitz “transition zone”) is very low density consisting single family homes renovated for college uses. The College should consider how it can fulfill its needs by more fully using the land available within this area including demolition of buildings to be replaced by a denser building pattern with buildings which are purpose-built for College needs.  Further, the College has placed very low value uses – surface parking – on key parcels further reducing its ability to make efficient use of its land.  Considering how parking can be accommodated in the middle of blocks or as part of other structures could expand the developable land.

Regulation: I’m more aware than most that city regulations have required some of the low value development which has taken place – zoning, parking requirements, setbacks, and stormwater regulations have all made it more difficult to use land efficiently. The City struggles with this issue and continues to incentivize suburban, low density, low return development (a movie theater and strip mall is looking for a subsidy right now) and here’s where College leadership – drawing on its commitment to innovation, quality, and sustainability – could help build support for a much denser campus building pattern which conserves neighborhood properties and helps the city craft the regulatory environment would help this happen.

Carleton can do better with Northfield: Carleton’s growth is critically important to the character of Northfield’s neighborhoods but where the college reaches into the neighborhood and downtown, the City’s interest is substantial. From a city perspective, the planning documents are startling in their lack of planning and design for the physical pattern of growth.  My hope is that the College will more actively engage the city and neighborhood in its planning and to think denser in its development pattern.  The College is a leader in sustainability in some ways, but it could help lead the City to more sustainable, distinctive use of land and infrastructure.

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5 Responses to Urbanism in College Towns

  1. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele May 20, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    Northfield is great. I used to play monthly gigs down there on Saturday nights, and there’s nothing like a nice summer evening out there by the river downtown.

  2. Scott Donaldson May 20, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

    Carleton alum of 2010 here — during my four years there I saw the College build two new dorms and acquire the former middle/high school (now Weitz Center). I lived in off-campus apartments and worked downtown my senior year, and got to know and love Northfield as a town much more than I had in the previous three years.

    It’s probably a pipe dream, but I wish the College wouldn’t put up such waterproof barriers between campus edge and town. Both in policy (greatly restricting the number of students who are permitted to live off-campus) and formally (the Weitz Center’s main entrance welcomes students, turns its back on the town), Carleton could do much more to engage Northfield culturally, architecturally, academically…

    • Betsey Buckheit
      Betsey Buckheit May 21, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

      Really, the purpose of this post was just to highlight that there are some great opportunities for those sorts of engagement and some denser, more campus-like development which would help conserve property in the neighborhood and manage the campus/neighborhood interface more successfully.

      The Weitz Center has been a rather mixed blessing – on one hand, Carleton has welcomed community events and shared that space quite generously with the public, but on the other hand, the design means it shows its loading docks to the neighborhoods.

      Northfield is a much more interesting town because of its colleges (so glad you got off campus before you graduated!), but attention to the development pattern is needed.

  3. Jonathan Ahn May 21, 2014 at 11:50 am #

    Recent Carleton alum here as well—you might be aware of this news already, btw—while it’s a very small portion of the newly released campus master plan, Carleton is slowly moving its ‘gravitational center’ toward downtown Northfield by building/renovating more townhouses on the west side of the campus and moving music/concert/drama facilities from the soon-to-be demolished Music and Drama Hall to the Weitz ‘annex’.


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