By: Mark Wallace
17 February 2002
As a faculty member of Swarthmore College, I have served on the College's Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) for the past six months and have learned a lot about the College's current needs and future plans in this regard. In the light of Al Bloom's, Larry Schall's, and Bill Rawn's decisions about new zoning and building opportunities the College should take in the future, I am writing to express my respectful dissent from the College's plan and to offer here my own alternative vision for the campus and surrounding neighborhoods and woodlands. Before I do so, however, I'd like to make two preliminary comments.
My first comment is that the College is an open and deliberative community of inquiry and that I have been supported by the LUPC and the President's Office in my attempt to articulate an alternative land use proposal. The LUPC has recorded in public my dissent from its report and I have been allowed to state my opinions at faculty gatherings and elsewhere. This willingness to hear my opinion -- an opinion not shared by the College administration and some others on the faculty -- speaks directly to the question of whether the College can be a fair broker in the debate now underway. My judgment is that the College should be seen as a principled discussion-partner in the current dispute and not dismissed as seeking its own interests without careful regard for the interests of the Borough. In fact, I think the College's plan serves neither its own interests nor that of the Borough's, but people of good will can disagree on this point. The College's openness to dissent stands in the long tradition of Quaker tolerance for diverse viewpoints and augers well for a healthy dialogue with the Borough about new directions the College and Borough might take together in the future.
My second preliminary comment is that I am in basic agreement with the broad values and principles formulated by the LUPC. Our collective understanding is that Swarthmore College is a pedestrian, residential, suburban learning environment where nature is the central visual feature of the campus and informal interactions between faculty and students is deemed crucial. The College is nationally noted for its green, arboreal, park-like campus surrounded by a beautiful residential town that insures an English village atmosphere for all members of the community. Thus, the health of the College and the health of the Borough are completely intertwined: what happens on campus impacts the town and vice versa; both need the other in order to grow and flourish.
The College's future building plans are threefold: converting the near north faculty neighborhood to institutional use; constructing a hotel/restaurant/parking structure on the south campus; and building an athletic fields complex on the Nether Providence side of the Crum Woods. These plans are now being made public to faculty, staff, and students, and will be presented publicly to the Borough Planning Commission on February 20. While I and others agree with the College's interest in fostering a green, residential campus that prizes intimate faculty-student interaction, we do not feel the current building plans serve this interest. I have deep love for the College and surrounding Borough and it is out of my affection for both that I register this dissenting viewpoint. I fear that the College's future building plans threaten the College's good reputation in town and the Borough's desire to maintain the residential ethos of its environs.
Let me take up each of the College's building plans in serial fashion.
1. The current proposal is to rezone and thereby have the rights to develop the near north residential neighborhood adjacent to the College in order to address the perceived need for more institutional space. But the assumption that the College needs more institutional space beyond its current borders is a debatable point in my mind. In the mid-1990s the College capped future student body growth at 1375. There is no move afoot to lift this cap anytime soon and it is unclear whether the College will ever support again the growth of the student body. (Lifting this cap in the future could have negative consequences regarding the College's use of its endowment, among other factors). Of course, even without student body growth, the College's institutional needs will continue to grow due to future curricular changes and innovations (e.g., need for a new Biology building). But it is not clear why this growth will necessitate expansion beyond the College's current borders and why such growth could not occur within the current campus footprint.
In any event, my contention is that there should be a sustained campus-wide discussion about the purpose and impact of these new programs and possible student body growth before the College goes to the Borough and asks for systemic land use changes. This is not the tack the College has chosen to take, however. At this point, in my mind, the College has put the cart before the horse: it is asking for a new land use plan from the Borough without explaining why it needs such changes based on projected student body growth or future agreed-upon curricular needs. Since no such growth or future need is now being contemplated, why does the College need zoning and other concessions from the Borough at the present time?
Nevertheless, let's say the College does at some point put forward a detailed growth plan vis-à-vis increased student body size and future curricular innovations. Then the question is, Where should the College build in the future? The College occupies a campus of more than 300 acres and does not need to raze or convert existing near campus housing to serve its institutional needs. The College should look to the lower campus, on the one hand, and move toward decked parking, on the other, as a way of both expanding and conserving its physical plant. In particular, the College should shift its focus away from the green and residential fringes of the campus -- i. e., the Crum Woods, the near north residential neighborhood (including Whittier Place, Elm Avenue, and the area bounded by Chester Road and Cedar), and the Harvard Avenue site &endash;- and move its focus instead back to the lower level of the main campus as more centrally located and thus a better suited future site for development -- specifically, the area around McCabe Library and Old Tarble, the area south of Sharples Dining Hall and that runs east toward the tennis courts, and the area along Chester Road between the new dorm, the Benjamin West house, and Worth Hall.
I have served on the College's LUPC for the past six months -- at times we have meet weekly. And during my time on the committee I have never heard a compelling reason why the College has decided to expand north rather than south/central. North of campus is a beautiful residential neighborhood where faculty and townspeople live together; south/central of the current campus is an institutional zone with many undeveloped building sites. Why go north rather than south? The College knew when it purchased the near north residences that that area was already zoned residential. Now it wants to change the zoning to satisfy vague future goals that it has not clearly articulated. The College argument does not make sense.
The advantage to my counterproposal to build on the south/central side of campus in the future is that it preserves the natural beauty and residential character of the current campus and surrounding neighborhoods while still opening up -- if and when the need arises and only after a detailed student body and College growth plan is articulated -- some limited development zones for future expansion but now in an already zoned institutional setting. This proposal is small scale and site appropriate. It allows for genuine campus growth but in a manner that is incremental rather than revolutionary and thereby more in keeping with the look and feel of the current campus layout -- a layout many of us have come to value and appreciate and do not want to see jettisoned by large-scale architectural designs.
Why is it important to prevent the College's expansion into the near north residential neighborhood? This neighborhood was constituted by the West Hill Land Company in 1878 as Swarthmore Borough's first residential community. It is deemed a national treasure and recommended as worthy of being listed on the National Historic Registry by the Delaware County Planning Commission in its just published survey of all homes in Swarthmore Borough. At its origins, it was largely built by and for Swarthmore faculty as a residential neighborhood integral to the life and mission of the College. It is a precious architectural gem that should be preserved in perpetuity as a living, vital neighborhood, not a target for institutional conversions, demolition, and expansion. This entire neighborhood, including the block bordered by Cedar and Chester Road, should remain virtually untouched.
Consider one example of what might be lost in the College's plan. Two of Swarthmore's oldest and most distinctive Gothic Revival homes in the Borough -- 404 Elm Avenue and 318 North Chester Road, known originally as "Sunny Slope" and "The Gables," respectively -- date back to the early 1880s, the same period that witnessed the construction of the Courtney Smith House. These two homes are possibly threatened by the College's proposal to have this block rezoned institutional so that the College can build large-scale institutional building on that block. This move -- along with other proposed plans to change historic use patterns and/or convert or even demolish current homes in the neighborhood -- would undermine the integrity and ecology of the near north neighborhood and is unnecessary in the light of the College's many other land holdings.
Instead of being a target for institutional use I would like to see this neighborhood reimagined as a living showcase that realizes the promise of a small, residential liberal arts college that prizes intimate faculty and student life and learning as one of its core values.
2. The question of the hotel/restaurant complex remains another troublesome issue in the College plan. Since the plans are so general at this point I will simply raise some questions. Is the current proposal for an 80-100 room hotel, 100-200 seat restaurant, and 300 or so space parking garage appropriate in scale for a small town the size of Swarthmore? (The numbers I have heard from Bill McNamara on the size of the complex shift back and forth.) Might not an intimately sized inn, perhaps even located in the business district center, make for a better location and better sized facility than what is currently being proposed? Will not the impact on the Rutgers Avenue neighborhood be disastrous if the hotel/restaurant complex, with the new street patterns, attracts significant traffic and alcohol consumption that then flows back and forth through that neighborhood?
Are there other ways to facilitate town/gown interactions on the south campus without such large-scale development? Or is the main issue driving the hotel/restaurant complex decision the College's desire for a non-official quid pro quo with the Borough that will insure zoning flexibility for the College on its north and south borders? Moreover, as a College faculty member, I question how this complex will serve the educational mission of the College. It would be nice to have a welcoming guest facility for College and other visitors, but at what price to the surrounding residential neighborhoods on the northern, southern, and now eastern borders of the College as well?
3. Finally, the College plans to build three athletic fields on the Nether Providence side of the Crum Woods -- along with breaching the area around Crum Meadows with a span bridge to provide foot and perhaps vehicular traffic to and from the athletic fields. But in his October 2000 Planning Principles draft Larry Schall identified the Crum Woods as one of the College's half a dozen or so "sacred places" that must be maintained as "green and open." As is the case with the College's proposal to convert the near north neighborhood to institutional use, the plan to cut into the Crum Woods to site playing fields will compromise the "green and open" look and feel of this rich teaching and recreational environment.
The Crum Woods is the last remaining old growth forest in Delaware County with stunning examples of native forest tree types found only in this one area. It contains a wealth of wildlife habitat and distinctive species -- including birds such as the wood thursh, scarlet tanager, and Canada warbler -- that rely on the forest interior of the Crum to survive. The College's plan to develop the Crum will fragment the forest and make more compact and thereby diminish the woodland core that many plant and animal species rely upon for sustenance and survival. The Crum is an outdoor laboratory for area biologists and students, an inspirational setting for classes and other group outings, and a beautiful and peaceful place of refuge for Swarthmore residents and their families. It is a one-of-a-kind island of original forest in an ocean of suburban development and sprawl. Far from looking to weaken further the Crum's biodiversity the College should look for ways to be better caretakers of this priceless green legacy.
An alternative to the College's plan would be for the College to consider other nearby undeveloped areas or already developed athletic field sites for its many uses. For example, rumor has it that Nether Providence might be expanding its Smedley Park fields for athletic purposes. These fields are within easy walking distance of the College through the Baltimore Pike underpass. Technically, the Borough apparently does not have legal jurisdiction over the section of the Crum the College hopes to develop. But the moral imperative incumbent upon all residents of Swarthmore is to protect for future generations its prize land holdings and the Crum Woods should rank at the top of everyone's list in this regard.
The College's land use plan is fundamentally at odds with itself. On the one hand, the plan speaks about the pedestrian and residential character of the campus where nature is the central visual feature of the learning environment and where informal "at home" interactions between faculty and students is deemed crucial. On the other hand, its proposals include substantial loss of current residential faculty housing, extensive development of the Crum Woods, and the building of a large hotel and restaurant complex that many people regard as not being in scale with the Borough or the College. Swarthmore College is blessed with a handful of glorious sites that make up the heart of the Swarthmore experience. These sites include Magill Walk, Scott Amphitheater, the Rose Garden -- and, yes, Crum Woods and, in my mind, the near north residential neighborhood. To be good stewards of the campus and surrounding neighborhoods is to preserve and strengthen this historic landscape. I have deep affection for the College and the utmost regard for its faculty, students, and administration. So it pains me to say that I cannot fathom why the current land use plan was proposed or whose interests it is supposed to serve. If the plan can somehow facilitate a new and constructive town-gown dialogue for the future then it will have performed an important function. But on the face of it the plan is neither in keeping with the Borough's nor the College's long-range interests.
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