Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Campus Planning and Design: Locating the Brad D. Smith Center for Business and Innovation at Marshall University

Earlier last month Marshall University alumnus and Intuit Chairman and CEO Brad D. Smith and his wife, Alys Smith, made a $25 million gift to Marshall's Lewis College of Business.

Brad Smith graduated from Marshall in 1986 with a business administration degree and then went on to work for a number of companies before being named Intuit's president and chief executive officer in January 2008. He recently announced he would be stepping down as CEO, but will remain as Intuit's executive chairman.

The news is fantastic for Marshall's business school, allowing the school to "rework its business curriculum and build new facilities." In the university's announcement, Dr. Avinandan “Avi” Mukherjee, dean of the Lewis College of Business, said, “In addition to redesigning our programs through experiential learning and close industry-academic partnerships, we will build new facilities with spaces to nurture collaboration, creativity and entrepreneurship. In appreciation for the Smiths’ vote of confidence, we will name our new business building the Brad D. Smith Center for Business and Innovation.”

With the announcement, it brings to question where the new business building will be located. Currently, the (now named) Brad D. Smith Schools of Business is housed within Corbly Hall, a fairly nondescript building on Marshall's southeast portion of campus. It's without question that there will be a new building for the business schools, but where would it best be located?

It would be helpful at this juncture to reference the University's 2014 Campus Master Plan. The plan designates a number of locations on campus that are proposed for expansion, with designations given to each. New residential halls, a recreation field (as an alumnus, I can attest it is sorely needed!), and even a mixed use/residential building are all proposed in the plan. And, it's important to remember now, this is just a plan. Plans change, and they should. We make plans with the best information we have available at the time we have it available to us, in response to current demands and perspectives. Well, a $25 million donation can help change whatever might be planned.

Marshall University campus expansion plans

Marshall's campus is fairly compact, spanning about 20 total blocks in the middle of Huntington, West Virginia. There aren't a ton of locations on campus where a new building can be built without tearing down an existing building, which, wouldn't be the worst thing for campus. But, Marshall's internal campus is already fairly built up, and maintaining some green corridors and open spaces in its interior should continue to be supported.

If the center of campus isn't ideal, let's look to the periphery. From a city planning perspective, Huntington has a pretty good urban fabric. The central part of the city is laid out on a grid, all of Marshall's campus included. The Marshall Board of Governors owns a healthy number of properties immediately adjacent to campus, including parking lots, vacant parcels, and a few commercial buildings. (As a student, I was unaware that the university owned the building that houses Husson's Pizza across from Old Main at 329 Hal Greer Boulevard.) In recent years, Marshall has added the Brad D. Smith Foundation Hall, the Arthur Weisberg Family Applied Engineering Complex and Engineering Laboratories, the Chris Cline Athletic Complex, the Veterans Memorial Soccer Complex, and the Marshall Visual Arts Center in Downtown Huntington.

So, in adding a new business building, what are some options considering the property Marshall already owns?

329 Hal Greer
Let's start with the small lot across from Old Main at the corner of 4th Avenue and Hal Greer, at 329 Hal Greer Boulevard. It's certainly the most "urban" site, and would give the university another space that helps to continue the town and gown relationship with Downtown Huntington that has been growing stronger over the last decade or so. The site is very small, and likely wouldn't accommodate the type of building Marshall has added in recent years. But, the property is located in the city's C-3 zoning district, which allows for a broad range of uses, has no parking requirements, and has no height limit. This could be a spot that allows for a new signature campus building, helping to continue to enliven the area west of campus. This is also one of the best locations for pedestrians given the surrounding roadway design, speeds and crossings. This is probably my favorite site given the possibilities of going up with a building, and for continuing to focus buildings along more-walkable streets.

Within the campus master plan the lot is designated to be residential and mixed use, but again, a new signature business school building could change that plan.

1610 3rd Avenue
Another close-by property owned by the university is a parking lot at 1610 3rd Avenue, adjacent to the Arthur Weisberg Family Applied Engineering Complex and Engineering Laboratories. This is an attractive site, given the ease of scraping the lot without the need to remove any existing buildings. The site is a bit larger, at about an acre, and is located within the C-2 District. The C-2 District is dubbed the Highway-Commercial District, and allows for buildings up to 150 feet. Other Marshall University buildings are within this zone, and are located along the north side of 3rd Avenue.

3rd Avenue is a major arterial that is a one-way state highway, with 5th Avenue as the other one-way highway that moves in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, both 3rd and 5th Avenue are not the most conducive to a campus feel. One way traffic with wide lanes induces travel speeds higher than posted or assumed. Unfortunately, the wide asphalt roadway is also unappealing, in a city that already lacks street trees in many parts. More on that later.

This site is located on a corner, allowing any perspective building to serve as a monument building, especially entering Huntington from Hal Greer Boulevard. Unfortunately, immediately across the street to the west, a recent commercial strip center was built, with deep setbacks, and a parking lot adjacent to the street. This is emblematic of the conventional development pattern along wide commercial corridors, but really is in contrast to much of what is built surrounding the site. It's unfortunate that Huntington's ordinances don't allow a maximum building setback for this area, especially given the prevailing development pattern in the lots surrounding the site, its adjacency to campus, and its designation as a lot within the "Downtown Transition" area in Huntington's long range land use plan.

While the site would be easily developed considering its current use as a parking lot, I would imagine there would be some challenge to the fact that parking spaces would be taken away in the process. While this might sound alarming, I have a difficult time believing that these spaces wouldn't be able to be absorbed by others throughout campus. The building of a new landmark campus building is far more important than preserving a surface parking lot.

Within the campus master plan this property is designated as an expansion to the science and technology research corridor. It certainly makes sense to continue the current uses along the north side of 3rd Avenue, but again, it's only a plan.

1700 Block of 5th Avenue / City National Bank 
On Marshall's southern campus boundary, the 5th Avenue corridor includes a number of underutilized parcels. This includes a vacant lot just to the east of the Harless Dining Hall on the south side of 5th Avenue. The university owned site is smaller than the property on 3rd Avenue, but with the inclusion of the City National Bank property, it makes the site much more feasible for redevelopment. This would be an interesting place for an additional campus building, filling in a gap between Harless, the Marshall Commons dormitories, and the Marshall University Public Safety Building and Myers Hall.

It's really surprising that the City National Bank site has survived as long as it has, given its adjacency to campus. This would be an opportune time for the university to explore the acquisition of the property, perhaps working on an agreement with National City Bank as a partner in the business college, and allowing the bank to secure a long term lease in exchange for acquisition of the land. The large drive through currently on the property is a bit out of character for a college campus, and something that seems like could be scaled back, with a potential building design that would still allow a drive through taking access and exiting onto 18th Street. (If the West Virginia DOT is anything like other DOTs across the country, they'll be interested in limiting any new access points along a major thoroughfare.

This site could also be attractive in that it continues to expand campus to the south, while also avoiding cutting into the current parking lots Marshall owns, although, this isn't a bad idea.

The campus master plan shows an additional residence hall being constructed adjacent to the City National Bank site, situated with its front to the open space next to the Harless Dining Hall. Given the amount of land that Marshall owns on the southern portion of campus, this is probably the most fluid portion of campus, and something that shouldn't be as firmly held to. The positioning of a signature building is probably best suited to front one of the campus major corridors. More on those corridors again in just a bit.

Any surface parking lot owned by Marshall University
Next, any surface parking lot owned by Marshall University should be considered. Like I said earlier, I have a difficult time believing that these spaces wouldn't be able to be absorbed by others throughout campus, and the introduction of a new landmark campus building is far more important than preserving a surface parking lot. The lots on the south side of 3rd Avenue leave plenty of room for parking, but would likely make any buildings there feel a bit out of place, and a bit isolated.

Other Considerations:

With the recent relocation of the university's College of Art and Design program to the Visual Arts Center in Downtown Huntington, it marks the university's willingness to try something a bit different, and focus some campus facilities in the middle of the central business district. It's a compelling argument, and something that should also be considered. The Visual Arts Center is located at 927 3rd Avenue, in the former Anderson-Newcomb Co. dry goods store. It was remarkably restored after being vacant for decades. The university recognizes the benefit of adaptive reuse, that "the downtown location of the VAC also allows occupants to walk or bike from campus and to nearby restaurants and other services, which reduces the need for automobile transportation and lowers pollution", and that no parking was needed to be accommodated for, given three nearby parking structures.

Marshall does not designate any additional land to be acquired within Downtown Huntington, but there could be properties worth pursuing for something the size of a business college. It's not probable, and I'd recommend a campus location, but I do like the idea of having even more students visiting Downtown Huntington.

Streetscape Improvements

In Marshall University's campus master plan, one of the more refreshing elements was the recognition of the need to enhance the environment along both 3rd Avenue and 5th Avenue. If there is nothing else that Marshall chooses to try to do for campus, this would be where I would start.

The campus master plan shows a decrease in the number of lanes, down to three travel lanes in each direction. There are currently four on each avenue, with 3rd Avenue having an additional lane for parking on each side, for a total of six lanes. This is not ideal for a college campus setting. (2010 WVDOT maps indicate approximately 15,000 ADT on 3rd Avenue, with about a 105' ROW as depicted below.)

3rd Avenue

5th Avenue

I am sure that WVDOT is weighing heavily in the consideration of the roadway design, but a consideration that might be better than what is currently proposed is opening both streets back to two-way traffic. (As they are in Downtown Huntington.) This is much safer and efficient for traffic and especially pedestrians. Two lanes in each direction for each avenue look to be able to be accommodated, while still having enough right of way for a parking lane and bike lane flanking each side of the street. Even allowing one lane of travel and one lane of parking in the opposite direction on each street (3rd Avenue could still have two lanes travelling west, and 5th Avenue with two lanes travelling east) could help provide increased circulation, and cut down on travel speeds. The issue of left turns would still need to be addressed, but including the one-lane of travel in the opposite direction toward the interior of campus may allow for more efficient travel. It's not an ideal situation, but the benefits of allowing travel in both directions on both 3rd Avenue and 5th Avenue extend to Huntington as a whole, not simply campus.

The width of the travel lanes could also be narrowed just a bit from the proposed 12', as wide lane widths increase travel speed, something that should be lowered by any measure through campus.

As an enhanced streetscape is able to be built through campus, the siting of buildings facing such a setting would be tremendous. It would certainly be an asset to have, and an enhancement to how students and visitors experience campus. By creating a friendlier streetscape along both avenues, you can continue to build a more cohesive and connected campus. As enrollment grows and the educational reach of Marshall continues to grow, the campus setting will have to change to allow campus to reach beyond 3rd Avenue and 5th Avenue and still feel connected as a whole.

Possible two-way traffic design for 3rd and 5th Avenues

Some final thoughts to consider as the location of the new Brad D. Smith Center for Business and Innovation:

1. The building's relationship to the street and other campus buildings
The building should address the street or interior of campus and offer students the ability to easily walk to it. Some of Marshall's recent additions to campus have missed this mark, while others have done fairly well, considering the possible improvements to both 3rd and 5th Avenue as recommended in the campus master plan.

2. The building's ability to connect or fill in other campus
The new building should not stand alone. Connecting campus or other parts of Huntington are important, a goal reflected in the campus master plan.

3. Do not to consider the loss of a parking lot
Surface parking is so abundant in Huntington, and especially on campus. Using a surface parking lot to build additional campus buildings is a necessary approach. Any inconvenience from the loss of a limited number of parking spots will easily be offset by the addition of a signature campus building.

I look forward to learning more about the Brad D. Smith Center for Business and Innovation discussion, and hope that there is some sort of dialogue among faculty, students and the community about its placement and design. My time spent in Huntington was terrific, and I enjoyed campus thoroughly. But, as the administration recognizes, there are some shortcomings, and I hope the university uses this opportunity to guide further campus development in the future. I'm a city planner right now, but campus planning is so much fun too, in that universities act as their own cities and towns. It's also a lot of fun to discuss when it's your own alma mater.

Go Herd!