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College unveils Landscape Master Plan

Plans aim for 'pedestrian sovereignty'

Editor in Chief

Published: Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 16:11

master plan

Courtesy of the Vice President for Finance and Administration

Above are current and proposed views of central campus. In the new Campus Landscape Master Plan, the College commits to “pedestrian sovereignty” with the ultimate goal of removing parking and vehicular traffic from the center of campus.

The College is ready to reveal a new Campus Landscape Master Plan at an open meeting on Monday, Nov. 22 in the Villard Room at 3 p.m. The Master Plan, which is currently close to being finalized, proposes an ambitious return of the campus to "pedestrian sovereignty," while also addressing issues of sustainability and accessibility for the landscape as a whole.

"A campus master plan can be very interesting because, while it is technically about the outdoor space and the landscape in particular, it can actually put forward some really powerful ideas about the organization of the campus," said Vice President for Finance and Administration Elizabeth Eismeier.

A master plan addresses long and short-term goals for campus projects, serving as a guide for capital planning. As written in the new plan, "While the individual recommended projects are designed to be of manageable size and scope, they are underwritten by holistic analysis of site-wide landscape systems."

A commitment to a pedestrian campus is the document's biggest theme, and perhaps the most ambitious aim is the removal of vehicles from the center of campus, in the area directly behind the College Center. While the new, wide pedestrian walkways will accommodate service and emergency vehicles and include provisions for accessibility, cars will no longer be able to drive straight through campus or to park in one of the current, central lots, such as behind Swift Hall or in front of Ely Hall.

"You don't necessarily need people driving to these destinations," said Eismeier. "Now, that's a culture shock for us. I think it will be quite controversial."

Though the plan removes parking from these areas, it reallocates the spots to the northern and southern ends of campus. Both North and South lots will expand. According to Matthew Urbanski, the principal at the firm who has been overseeing Vassar's master plan, every spot that is removed from the center of campus will be accounted for in spots added in these peripheral areas.

Although cars will be discouraged from the central campus, the drive through Main Gate will be preserved. "Everyone remembers that first time you come to the campus and you're only seeing through the key-hole of the gate and onto Main," said Eismeier, "We don't ever want to give that up. We want that first impression to come from the view through Main Gate."

This plan is not the first campus master plan that Vassar has commissioned to guide long-term projects. The previous Campus Master Plan, produced in 1988 by Sasaki Associates, Inc., incrementally began some of the goals of reducing central parking and introduced some significant changes to the center of campus, such as the relocation of Buildings and Grounds from the center of campus to its current location in south campus. Many of the goals in that plan were finished within five or ten years of its adoption, while others have been left unfinished as the College's priorities and needs have changed.

"Everyone felt it was just time to update it," said Professor of Earth Science and member of the Campus Master Planning Committee Jeff Walker. "It didn't give us a lot of updated information on traffic patterns [or] on native plantings."

For the new Landscape Master Plan, the College hired Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, which developed the plan's vision for the campus with input from the Campus Master Planning Committee. The firm has experience designing master plans for a number of other colleges and universities, including Harvard University, Princeton University and Wellesley College.

According to Urbanski, Van Valkenburgh approaches each institution individually, looking for a custom fit. "We don't have a formulaic approach," he said, "and that's a loaded statement." This approach, he said, separates Van Valkenburgh from other similar companies.

Some of the projects are relatively simple and will likely be implemented in the next five years, while other goals, such as the redistribution of parking and vehicular traffic, represent a far-reaching vision of the campus, which the College will achieve as time and resources allow.

"Having a plan gives us the opportunity to say we know where we're headed, so if something comes up—if we asked to add parking, or build a new building, or make an entrance universally accessible—we've got a reference point for future development," said Eismeier.

In many ways, the Master Plan is a return to the historical values of Vassar's campus. According to Urbanski, "The image of Vassar is very bound-up with the landscape… The campus has a wonderful balance of formality and informality."

As they prepared the draft of the master plan, Urbanski and his team did extensive research on the history of the campus landscape, looking at archived photos and plans. They also conducted interviews with members of many campus constituencies to determine how different aspects of the campus are used or have been used in the past. "We cast an extremely wide net," said Urbanski.

Michael Mestitz '12, a student representative elected to the committee, explained how he was able to contribute based on his first-hand experiences as a student and campus tour guide. "There's been a lot of discussion about how to get prospective students to the Admissions House without getting them totally lost," said Mestitz. "You know, the students are the ones who have done that most recently." [Disclosure: Mestitz is a Columnist for The Miscellany News.]

While parking on the north and south extremes of campus will pose a longer walk to the center of campus, there are provisions for accessibility in the plan and a commitment to the principles of universal design. Universal design is based on the idea that buildings and landscapes should be accessible for the widest possible audience—that accessibility should not be an additional or secondary consideration, but rather integrated into the main design.

"I think the architects Vassar has contracted have really listened to Vassar's desire to use the Campus Landscape Master Plan as an opportunity to create universal design on campus," said Associate Dean of the College and Director of Equal Opportunity Belinda Guthrie. "Instead of just building ramps, it's often possible to modify the landscape so that it creates an attractive, natural, on-grade access to the main or primary entrance of a building. This is always the preferred solution." Employing principles of universal design would make the campus more accessible, but accessible features would not appear as special considerations because of their complete integration into the design.

According to Guthrie, in 2008 the College committed to the principles of universal design as developed by the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo for all new campus renovations. As the process of the master plan began, Vassar looked for a firm that would incorporate these ideals into their work.

Like many other capital projects, though, the implementation of universal design has been delayed by economic factors. "It's really restricted to funds and resources," said Guthrie. "I think a couple years ago the College, like most institutions, Vassar had much more aggressive plans for program enhancement and campus renovations. With the change in the economy, everything is being re-assessed. I'm actually very pleased to see that the College is still moving forward with renovations."

However, "Sometimes it's not fast enough for students who are only here for four years," she addeed. "Their experience is their experience in those four years, and challenges for access make their experience more difficult."

An area that has been of particular concern for accessibility is the connection between south and central campus—the area between Olmsted and Skinner Halls. This area has received particular attention as the future site of the new and renovated science facilities. This project has been integrated into the Campus Landscape Master Plan and has significant bearing on the link between south campus and campus proper. "It provides a wonderful opportunity to rethink the connections between existing buildings and the new bridge building and how the landscape impacts the connection between those buildings and the campus proper," said Associate Dean of the Faculty Marianne Begemann.

Along with added paths in the area a new ‘bridge' science building will be built over the Casperkill Creek. In addition to providing lab space, the building itself will be a universally accessible path between central campus and Skinner Hall.

Underneath the bridge, the College plans to rejuvenate the wetlands by restoring the Edith Roberts Garden. This plan is in keeping with the Master Plan's goals for campus sustainability.

Large sections of the Landscape Master Plan are devoted to wastewater management and the maintenance of Vassar's water systems, which include streams and two lakes. It suggests using native vegetation to filter runoff from parking lots and around the lakes. The plan also proposes new methods of tree management and lawn care with suggestions for varieties of native tree species.

The Master Plan observes, "The Vassar landscape is as important as the architecture in creating the spatial experience of the campus," but also that "Vassar's horticultural health is in decline."

The sustainability goals are among the projects that will be easiest to achieve in the short term. One such project, organic lawn care, has already begun this fall.

Other areas of the Master Plan are also already underway. The construction engulfing the Wimpfheimer Nursery School and Infant Toddler Center parking lot is included in the Master Plan, and the plan's principles of universal design and pedestrian space are being implemented.

As to the grand scope of the master plan, Urbanski noted, "A master plan is not a design… A design is much more specific." As the College approaches the individual projects, it will host further conversations and more particular planning for their execution. A Master Plan provides guiding principles that tie individual projects to a bigger picture.

"Any master plan I believe is a good thing," said Begemann, "because it makes you think holistically about your vision and making sure that everything fits together; you are not picking off little projects and then realizing that your efforts don't really hold together as a cohesive and optimal plan."

While the plan includes projects that will take years to complete, and some will surely be reassessed later on, the overarching themes represent an updated version of Vassar's vision for itself with a very contemporary approach to space, resources and institutional history. Even as the College reaches these goals in 10 or even 20 years, the projects will be indicative of the time in which the Master Plan was created.

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