Official: Highlands is 'not an island'

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By Don Pace

Highlands University officials are reviewing a master plan that proposes closing eastbound traffic on National Avenue, among other recommendations.

The plan also includes the proposed $18 million student union center.

Studio Southwest Architect Shary Adams said the center would have a theater, a ballroom, a book store, a cafe, rooftop gardens, governance chambers, and a two-tiered cafeteria.

It will also have a skywalk from the student center to Donnelly Library.

Some say they like the look of what will become the landscape of the area surrounding the university, green areas, state-of-the-art water conservation and catchment systems, environmentally friendly projects. But there are those who say their back-yard view will become that of a parking lot and out-of-control students.

Highlands University President Jim Fries recently welcomed representatives from the city and county to listen to the presentation on the school’s master plan by Studio Insite architects, and look at the design of the new student center by Studio Southwest Architect Shary Adams.

“Highlands is not an island. We’re an important part of the community, and the community is extremely important to the success of the university. So this is an open and joint effort to look at the suggestions being made and to collect as much input as possible,” Fries said.

Fries said it’s important for any university to take time to look at its strategic plan in terms of programs, enrollment growth and all the other things that go into an effective strategic plan. But he said it’s also important to also look at its campus.

“The master plan supports the strategic plan and the day-to-day functioning and quality of campus life issues that are important to our overall success,” Fries said.

Fries said that means looking at its facilities, layout and the relationship of one building to another — and the way pedestrian, vehicular, and bicycle traffic can effectively flow through the campus.

Fries said with that in mind, the university choose Studio Insite Architects to work on the master plan and Studio Southwest Architects to design the new student union building.

“They will give us an update in terms of where we’re at because it’s important for all of us on campus and in the community to have a sense of what is being suggested, and have an opportunity to give input.

“Much of what you will see in today’s presentation is not something the university can implement tomorrow, even if we wanted to. The thought is what will the campus look like over the next couple of decades,” Fries said.

Studio Insite architect Chris Geddes outlined a number of goals, including making Highlands a pedestrian-oriented environment and to promote the historic, cultural and social aspirations of the community.

Geddes said his team sees an opportunity to enhance pedestrian traffic on the campus through the closure of Mora Avenue, San Francisco Avenue, Rosenwald Avenue and a portion of Sultzbacher Street.

He said his firm was also suggesting the closure of a couple of streets on the western side of the campus, and the elimination of the eastbound portion of National Avenue, allowing that traffic to go on University Avenue instead. 

Regent Jesus Lopez said there was an earlier recommendation to close National Avenue entirely.

“The Board of Regents expressed a great deal of distress about that, at least I did, and I said we are not closing National Avenue to this community. National is a main traffic artery, and its closure would have been devastating. So I’m very pleased our concerns were expressed in the plans. As I understand it National Avenue will be open one way, and University Avenue will go the other way,” Lopez said.

“That is a good recommendation, but the initial recommendation was to close National Avenue entirely,” Lopez said

Geddes said another street that was being looked at was 12th Street.

“Currently, 12th Street ends at the Tramway building. We are suggesting the extension of 12th Street along the Gallinas River corridor to connect to Mills Avenue. Since we have eliminated Mora Avenue through the campus, we feel it’s important to provide the community another pathway from the north side of the campus to the south side,” Geddes said.

Geddes said the plan calls for a lot more open space, where students can lay in the grass and study. He said parking is a necessary evil, but the campus is in dire need of more of it He said native landscapes were also being planned at a number of areas around the campus.

City Councilman Andrew Feldman said he supported the master plan.

"As the City Council member whose ward encompasses the campus, I like the plan. It is important that we have a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly campus that sets an example for the community," he said.  

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In a e-mail to university officials, Keith Kjelstrom is an Eighth Street homeowner who has voiced his opposition to the plan. He said he and others fear that Highlands plans to acquire and wipe out the affordable houses and apartments near the college.

He and some of his neighbors have been upset with the effects of new dorms and a large parking lot next to their homes.

“Please do not extend the parking lot and double the damage that you have already done,” Kjelstrom said.