Why UM campus belongs downtown

June 11, 1999|By Kurt Cushwa

It is clear from all of the questions that I have received and the articles in the newspaper that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the potential for locating the proposed University of Maryland campus downtown.

This is the result of a lack of understanding. The proposed campus is not going to be a traditional university campus. The proposed campus will be very similar in function and design to the new campus at Shady Grove. This facility looks more like an office complex than a campus. There are no football stadiums or dormitories. Two thirds of the classes are at night, serving mostly mature students going for advanced degrees.

In my mind the first and most important question to be asked is where the students would be best served. There is a lot more to education than classrooms and textbooks.

Often the most important lessons are learned from professors or fellow students over coffee or a meal after class. This can happen downtown. It cannot happen at a campus located in an industrial park.


The biggest concern about the downtown location seems to be the parking situation. However, parking is actually one of the advantages of the Baldwin House site. The proposal includes a covered pedestrian bridge connecting the building to the city parking deck.

There are currently more than enough empty parking spaces in the deck during the day to accommodate the proposed number of daytime students and staff. The number of spaces in the deck at night far exceeds the number required. If we assume that the industrial park location would require that students purchase the same type of parking passes required at the Community College, it appears that the parking downtown will be closer, under cover and less expensive.

A primary reason to look at the downtown location is the cost. If the taxpayers of Hagerstown and Washington County understood the ramifications of the industrial park location, they would all be calling their representatives. It appears that the downtown location will save between $4 and $6 million dollars over the industrial park location.

More importantly, there is a serious concern about the state's funding of the industrial park location. The Governor's Smart Growth Initiative has 10 specific points which are to be checked for all state-funded projects. When the industrial park site is analyzed, it received a zero score. The downtown site receives a perfect 10.

The State Planning Office has already issued a letter to the Site Selection Committee that "strongly recommends" that an alternative site be selected. When the state balks at funding an overpriced alternative that does not meet the Smart Growth Initiative the only alternatives will be the downtown location, or a greater share of the cost being paid by the County taxpayers.

On the other hand, a downtown location would entice new and existing businesses to expand and to remain open at night. This would increase demand, leading to higher rents and higher property values. The city is looking at a property tax increase next year.

One of the main reasons for this increase is the fact that downtown property values have not increased as in other locations. The best way to control residential property taxes is with higher property taxes from a thriving downtown. This campus would go a long way to achieving this goal.

For all these reasons, I am volunteering the time and efforts of my firm to analyze the problems and potentials of a downtown location. There are still a lot of questions to be answered, but it is crystal clear that the proposal needs to be explored.

Kurt Cushwa is the owner of Design/Build architects and has done a number of downtown renovation projects.

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