You are here


Expansion, without the Red Tape

City officials can help—or hinder—a campus expansion plan. Here's how to make sure they're on board with your proposal.
University Business, Nov 2008

LONG BEFORE ANY GROUND was broken on $60 million in renovation and new construction projects at Trine University (Ind.) some three years ago, officials at the school were building something far more important: relationships.

Senior Vice President Michael Bock kept in touch frequently with Angola’s city planner, Julie Cole, by e-mail and via meetings and the occasional business lunch. The university also provided space for quarterly business workshops held by Cole’s office.

When Trine rolled out plans to add a new university center, a center for technology and online resources, and new athletic facilities, officials in the city of 7,800 were both well aware and supportive of the plans. They had even created a “university zone” that gave the school more flexibility than typical municipal ordinances. “[Trine University] is a vital part of our community,” says Cole. “Anything we can do to help them—to allow them to succeed—we’re willing to do.” According to Bock, the city council, board of zoning appeals, board of works, and the mayor are involved in building approvals.

Earning critical city support for a campus expansion plan starts with cultivating good relationships with key officials. But it doesn’t end there. The effort also involves building a strong case for the plan while being willing to make compromises that don’t undermine institutional needs.

Here are a few steps involved in making sure local officials help pave the way (sometimes literally) for an expansion plan.


Building support for a plan often begins well before a single blueprint is created, says John Bryant, director of facilities, planning, and management at Mount Holyoke College (Mass.). Officials at his institution, which recently added athletics facilities and a new residence hall, have always given plenty of advance notice about building projects to officials in South Hadley, a town of about 17,300 that’s run by a representative town meeting form of government with 120 elected members, an appointed town administrator, and a five-member selectboard.

The advance notice is more than just a courtesy—it’s a vital part of the planning process. “We tell [city officials] about a year in advance that we’re thinking about an idea or project,” Bryant says. He says it gives them a chance to voice concerns or issues with the project, which can prevent headaches later on. “The further into design you are, the more [those unaddressed concerns] become disruptive. It’s best for everybody to have all their cards on the table early.”

Early meetings are less about persuading the city to see the institution’s point of view than about creating an open discussion, according to Nels Hall, principal at Yost Grube Hall Architecture, whose clients have included Portland Community College’s Cascade campus and Portland State University. Getting input from community groups, city planning groups, and other constituencies can help you create a plan that will sail through required reviews. “Things go wrong when there hasn’t been initial dialogue,” Hall says. “Your plan shouldn’t be a show-and-tell, where you’re just telling people what you want, because that puts [city officials] in a defensive position.” A college is more likely to build trust if its leaders are “in a dialogue mode, not a selling mode,” he adds.

Advance preparation can also help head off criticism before it starts. At Mount Holyoke, school officials developed a parking management plan for their athletics facilities to allay fears that neighbors had about the possibility of crowded streets on game days.

And at Baldwin-Wallace College (Ohio), school officials knew that some in the city of Berea, which has about 18,970 residents,were wary of the impact of the school’s expansion plans. To help ease concerns, college officials made significant efforts to preserve historic houses, use environmentally friendly construction processes, and create a smooth transition for a church congregation that would be displaced during the process. “We’re not an island,” says Assistant Vice President George T. Richard. “There were many different interests, but we’re all in this together.”

The same might be said about various kinds of higher ed institutions, since even the most prestigious IHEs with the greatest capital plans must keep their surrounding cities in mind, and city officials in the loop. At Yale, for example, it’s Michael J. Morand’s job as associate vice president of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs to be in close touch with the 30-member board of aldermen in New Haven on a regular basis, he explained at the 2008 North Atlantic Regional SCUP Conference, held on Yale’s campus in March.

It’s certainly in Yale’s best interest to develop plans that are good for the city as well as the campus. As recently as the 1990s, town/gown relations were strained. Now, thanks to several efforts to get residents of New Haven involved with the institution, as well as Yale officials, making a conscious effort to be inclusive about development, the city’s mayor has been quoted as saying how critical it is for the city that Yale continue to grow. “We’re in a place where our growth is embraced,” said Morand, adding that city officials and the people in the community “are like brothers and sisters, not distant cousins.”

And the university now gets “routine approvals,” Morand explained. With 2.8 million square feet of new construction and more than 4 million square feet of renovations underway on campus, a smooth approvals process is a necessity.

An expansion plan will help give the institution what it needs to succeed, but it also should have a positive impact on the outside community. “An expansion in the college can be an opportunity to reinvigorate a neighborhood,” says Hall. If city officials feel that an improvement will benefit the community as well as the college, they may be more likely to sign off on a project.

At a minimum, an expansion provides an opportunity to improve basic amenities where the school borders the community, including areas such as lighting, landscaping, and sidewalks. Leaders at the University of the Pacific (Calif.) helped quell skepticism about a new biology building that was to be built on open space by focusing on the improvements the expansion would bring. “We explained that we were keeping a lot of the space,” says Patrick Cavanaugh, vice president of business and finance. “We were landscaping it, we were adding benches and lights, and we would continue to make it available for the public to enjoy.”

Hall says that it’s important to highlight how new construction can have a positive impact on local business. At Portland State, new development at the school required tearing down several derelict houses and upgrading several historic ones. In the three years since the development was completed, Hall says six or seven new businesses have moved to the area. “It’s had a very positive impact on the neighborhood,” Hall notes.

Worries from neighbors and city officials about noise at Mount Holyoke's new athletics facilities were considered reasonable and repairable--so plans were modified.

Offering some access to new facilities can provide the kind of benefits that make a city more likely to offer approval on a project. Mount Holyoke school officials agreed to allow residents to use the track and its enclosed field during certain hours. They also offered the facility to town teams that wanted to use the synthetic turf for field hockey games and track meets. “We’re very particular about when this happens and how it happens,” says Bryant. “There’s some give and take, but we see the town [officials] as partners, not adversaries.”

At Portland Community College, Cascade, the expansion plan included facilities with meeting rooms, a stage for music performances,and a tiered auditorium. When school leaders made it clear that the spaces would be available for the community’s well-respected African film festival and other events, interest in the project soared. The town hadn’t been able to increase the size of the festival, but the new spaces on campus removed that barrier and really benefited the community as well, notes Hall. Those new spaces are also shared with the local high school, which uses the college’s classrooms to teach a program for gifted students.

While some cities may be swayed by access and improvements, others will demand proof in a building’s worth in cold, hard numbers. An economic impact study can help cement a deal with city officials who might otherwise balk at expansion. “We like to talk about the impact on the city in terms of economic impact,” says Trine’s Bock. “It’s not just the contracts that are awarded locally and the construction jobs. It’s also about the increase in student enrollment, and the impact of moms, dads, and families coming to town. Growth for us is good for everyone.”

One of the surest ways to provoke the ire of city officials is to disregard or dismiss their concerns. Colleges willing to compromise will reap benefits.

When it became clear that Baldwin-Wallace College’s master plan—which included a residence hall and an expansion of the college recreation center—would involve potential street closings, city officials and residents worried about safety issues and emergency vehicle access. “We realized that they had valid concerns,” says Richard. “We incorporated their suggestions and decided not to close the street.”

Public concern was also the catalyst for change at Mount Holyoke. Worries that neighbors and city officials brought up about noise at the school’s new athletics facilities prompted the school to investigate its plans more seriously. Bryant says the potential problems they brought up were both reasonable and repairable. “We knew that there would be questions about parking and lighting—but we hadn’t thought about the sound system,” he says. “We had an acoustical engineer come up with a report and design to keep the decibel levels [lower].”

Trine University officials have changed landscaping, entrance drives, and fencing at the request of the community. “We’re always open to suggestions,” says Bock. “And we work closely with the city to reach a compromise that makes sense for both parties.”

While there will always be the occasional resident or city official interested in stirring up trouble, most people offer up legitimate issues that should be addressed by a school. “These people live there, and they can look beyond a plat of land or a campus footprint,” says Richard. “They know who lives in the area, and they know what’s important in the area. Making decisions becomes a product of deliberation—and cooperation.” Indeed, many changes turn out to be a boon not just for the town but for the school as well. Being open to ideas throughout the process will likely result in an improved plan for everyone involved.

The truth is, there is no secret formula to winning over public officials—it’s simply a matter of applying the Golden Rule, says Cavanaugh. But by being open, attentive, and flexible, campus leaders can achieve their goals—and help the city achieve its goals as well. “Try to put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re affecting,” Cavanaugh says. “If you’re a local official or a neighbor across the street, what would you expect? Empathize with their responsibilities, respond to their concerns, and treat them with honesty and respect. Reasonable minds can differ, but we should do things that advance [our own and] the public’s interest. That’s what’s important.”

Erin Peterson is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who last covered town/gown relations for University Business in the September 2007 article “Making an Impact,” which explored economic impact studies.