By Tess Steele
After the recent conclusion of the Public Design Workshop, the University is pressing ahead with plans to revitalize the downtown Sewanee area in the next few years. The plans for the changes downtown will be finished around December, and construction should start in 2016.
From the tapping of car roofs to class dress, the University of the South is steeped in tradition, with pride being taken in this unwavering Sewanee spirit. However, with such tradition, the university continues to evolve, making accommodations to the ever transforming times. One of the many changes the school is currently tackling is the revitalization of downtown Sewanee.
This revitalization trend, while still a new concept here on the Mountain, is actually a national trend. Resulting from the desire to rethink the standards of urban layout in the late 80s and early 90s, the Congress of the New Urbanism (CNU) came into being to shift the focus of design from commercial develop to community development. Since its founding, the CNU has reinvented the approach of urban expansion by collaborating with community members to maintain historical aspects of cities and towns, while simultaneously pursuing diverse innovations for the centers being restored. Essentially, CNU’s work centers around people, with the improvement of community dynamics being achieved through the prosperity of both village businesses and citizens. (“The Movement | CNU”)
Being part of this national movement, Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative (TPUDC) has taken on the task of revitalizing the Sewanee Village. Brian Wright, the firm’s founder, takes pride in his firm’s involvement with community members during the planning process. This practice was manifested in the Public Design Workshop, which was held from August 10th to the 13th here on the Mountain. With many students being away, a large portion of those at the workshop were community members independent of the University, along with a faculty presence. Not only was the turnout successful, but the reception was as well. “Most people had the same concerns that we did, and by the end of the last day, many community members felt included in the planning process. Overall, the responses were positive,” shared Wright.
A vibrant downtown could be a cordial place for the locals and students, as well as an amenity to the university. The idea is the better the village, the better the experience. Having downtown Sewanee become a destination, rather than simply a stop, is the goal of this project. The purposes of buildings are still being debated, but some of the possibilities include housing for Seminary students, co-work spaces, studying facilities, a movie theatre, additional eating options, and a relocated student bookstore. When interviewing students at various times during the planning process, Wright noticed that there was a void in date night venues. “I gathered that here in Sewanee there isn’t a real dating scene. You either get in a car to go to Chattanooga and endure an awkward ride there and back, or you go somewhere like Ivy Wild with a steep price range for college students.” Having a more reasonable priced and intimate venue for dates is definitely something that Wright hopes to add to the Village.
For students living off campus, the social dynamic is different from those living in the middle of the weekend bustle. One of these students living off campus is Mimi Middlebrooks, (C’16). “Since the year has started we have had more of our friends come over to our apartment to hang out on the weekend, versus “going out.” I do think that I will continue to attend as many events as possible on campus, considering that many of my friends are involved in theme houses, clubs, etc, but I have no desire to strut all the way out to a fraternities to get wild,” shared Middlebrooks.
Transportation to downtown has also been a hot topic. “The transportation between campus and town has actually been wonderful. It is a great, short bike ride, but when I choose to walk, it is always a period for me to slow down during my day,” said Middlebrooks regarding the trek to campus from her apartment. While walking is always an option, the new Village plan will include a cycle lane all the way to downtown, a completely separate cycling lane running parallel with 41A, a town-run transportation system from the university to the Village, and the reduction of 41A to two lanes. Having a smaller 41A will allow for construction on the south side of the street, providing ample expansion space for the downtown.
This project is unique in the sense that students, faculty, and locals all have a say in this creation process. That being said, students will be able to expand their involvement past the planning process. The university can recruit students to assist with the documentation process for the archives, adding to the school’s history. Students involved with Geographic Information System (GIS) can also help create mapping and road layout. Wright expressed interest in having students play a role in the sustainability of the new downtown, with LEED certified buildings and other various sustainable practices being implemented. “This process can be educational, interactive, and transformative. That will be a key for us,” Wright eagerly expressed.
The Master Plan for the Village should be wrapping up around December, but dates for construction have yet to be shared. According to Wright, five developers have expressed strong interest in taking on the construction, therefore 2016 seems like a promising year for the start of this massive project. “We really hope that our work in Sewanee can become a national model for the revitalization of downtowns in rural communities,” said Wright. With remarkable consideration and overwhelming enthusiasm for the project, it seems that Wright’s wish may very well become a reality.