Urban Studies

UT could use some lessons in urban planning

Despite being one of the Southeast's oldest state universities, you won't find any buildings dating back to the University of Tennessee's founding on campus. For starters, despite the 1794 date on its seal, UT didn't move to its current environs until the 1820s. And even then, nothing but the real estate remains to connect UT's current campus to its antebellum beginnings.

South College Hall, the oldest building on campus, only dates back to 1872. And, with the exception of circa-1898 Estabrook, the remaining "old" buildings on UT's Hill date from the 20th century.

Many, such as Ayres Hall, are actually the second generation of buildings on the site. UT's earliest buildings—the 1820s Old College and its flanking East and West College halls, added in the 1840s—were knocked down in 1919 to make way for Ayres' construction (making bulldozing old buildings among UT's oldest traditions). When finished, the new centerpiece lorded over a variety of Victorian-vintage campus buildings: Barbara Blount, Humes and Carrick Halls, a YMCA and Carnegie Library and, on the site of the campus' current Science and Engineering Building, Science Hall, a towering Victorian gothic structure.

Some of the names were recycled, but most of The Hill's first-generation buildings would eventually suffer the same fate as Old College: knocked over during the next decade to make way for new construction. The Roaring '20s were a time of great expansion in enrollment, particularly among women. Dorm space became so limited that male students were required to seek rooms off-campus (the start of Fort Sanders' long, sad history of student housing). New buildings were added, old buildings knocked down, and the university campus spilled off The Hill and into the surrounding neighborhood.

Now, thanks to lottery scholarships, UT is seeing a similar spike in enrollment. Administrators are struggling to accommodate the increased numbers, estimating that university will grow to more than 30,000 students within a decade. Where to put them is the question before a 33-member panel recently convened to consider UT's growth.

It's a good question. The current campus is largely "landlocked." And the potential for sprawling westward again by developing the Cherokee Farm property runs smack into stiff opposition from Sequoyah Hills residents. So does that mean the bulldozers will be fired up yet again?

Maybe. And that might not be a bad thing, assuming UT doesn't shove over the current crop of old buildings atop The Hill. Instead, administrators will hopefully follow a recent set of consultant's recommendations and list a number of campus buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Doing so would allow the university to access many of the same financial incentives that have helped expedite downtown redevelopment. Historic preservation tax credits, for instance, contributed several million dollars to the Tennessee Theatre's restoration when sold on the secondary market.

Historic preservation, however, isn't the only thing the university can learn from downtown. Whether renters, restaurant patrons, or retail customers, UT students have played a major role in supporting downtown redevelopment. In fact, students seem to prefer the urban environment of Market Square to the shabby suburban atmosphere of the Cumberland Avenue Strip.

But the Strip's sad decline may be the University's saving grace. Currently, the city is embarking on planning and zoning changes to convert Cumberland into a mixed-use, mid-rise, high-density district. Cumberland could add several hundred-thousand square feet of new residential, office, and institutional space. That space could go a long way toward accommodating needed expansion, as would applying the same urban principles to redeveloping the broad lawns and surface parking of UT's own sprawling western "suburbs." By becoming more urban, UT can piggyback on downtown's success, and carve out a distinct marketing niche as one of the Southeast's largest urban universities.