I attended the second session held on the Cal Poly campus to acquaint city residents with the university’s plans for freshman dormitories. This session was designed as if it were a presentation for the CSU Board of Trustees, instead of for local citizens whose major concerns were not the learning benefits to freshman students, but rather, to the surrounding neighborhoods in which they live.
While this was a fundamental error in judgment on the part of Cal Poly administrators, the comment that captured my attention came from a vice president who said, in essence, “We even considered the demolition of the ‘concrete dorms’ in order to intensify the use of those sites for these freshman dorms.” I thought to myself, if they are serious about this, that means they have opened their minds to a whole spectrum of site possibilities; the slate must be clean. They truly mean to select the best possible site and want to be intellectually honest about this project.
And then came the frontpage story in last Thursday’s Tribune. How wrong I was!
The Grand Avenue site selected for dormitory construction is not the best site for first-year students or any students, for that matter. Any simple flow and relationship diagrams (graphic tools used by architects and planners) to determine the best relationships between buildings (or spaces) based on the circulation expected to take place would show that the very best location is the site of Cal Poly’s administration building. A good planner would have put that site in the mix, even though the idea of moving/converting an administration building to a dormitory might seem daunting.
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Consider the location of the present administration building: It is immediately adjacent to the Student Union; it is just a few steps from the main student cafeteria and dining rooms; the student health center is close by, as well as the new student recreation facility; the Kennedy Library is within easy reach as are the principal academic classrooms and laboratories, including the new Baker Science Building; Mott Gym is a half block away. An administration building has little need to be adjacent to any of these facilities, but these are the facilities student housing needs to be close to. This site is the very best location for new freshman dorms, while the best place for a new, low-level, architecturally subdued administration building is on Grand Avenue, where the dorms are proposed.
Architects should be set to work sketching how the administration building could be converted to a new purpose. Should this site and adjacent parking be too small, one or more of the nearby brick dorms should be enlarged accordingly.
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong has announced plans for the university to grow by an additional 4,000 to 5,000 students. The citizens of San Luis Obispo want to know where these additional students are to be housed. I dare say citizens would love to see that entire number located on campus, and the closer student housing is to the center of the campus, the greater the opportunity for peace and quiet in adjacent residential neighborhoods.
Is Cal Poly prepared to not only provide new classrooms, laboratories and ancillary facilities, but also on-campus student housing as well? Any institution, private or public, that envisions a 25 percent increase in size has a responsibility, no, an obligation, to amend its master plan of land use and circulation to show how this growth is to be accommodated — well before specific plans are prepared to carry out the objectives of that amended master plan.
I detect no movement on the part of Cal Poly’s administration to share its thinking about its proposed growth. While I do not represent the city of San Luis Obispo in any official capacity, I am a concerned citizen knowledgeable in these matters. I urge you to become a better neighbor. Notwithstanding Cal Poly’s enviable record as an educational institution and its unique “Learn-By-Doing” philosophy, Cal Poly’s record and standing as a neighbor leave much to be desired.
Architect Kenneth E. Schwartz, FAIA, served on the San Luis Obispo City Council for 16 years — 10 years as mayor and six years as council member. He is a former professor of architecture, associate dean and interim dean of Cal Poly’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design, an institution he served from 1952 until 1988.