Last Chance for a New Campus in Houston?

Tory Gattis, over at the other Chronicle (in Houston), has an idea for a prime piece of real estate in that Texas city. The 136-acre parcel—which is being sold by the engineering and construction company KBR—is near downtown, sits along the Buffalo Bayou, and has plenty of opportunities for green space. (See the red circle on the map below.)

“This parcel of land could be the last opportunity for Houston to add a major college campus to the city,” Mr. Gattis writes, noting that Houston has fewer colleges than many other major cities.

“We should consider something similar to what NYC just did with Roosevelt Island, where after a long evaluation process they awarded it to Cornell for a technology campus,” Mr. Gattis argues. “Of course the City of Houston doesn’t own the land, but it could be a facilitator … to open discussions with the landowner and various universities to explore interest.”

He lays out various ways that existing universities or start-up colleges, backed by a billionaire philanthropist, could do something unique on the land. One of the most compelling ideas is a Hispanic equivalent to historically black institutions like Prairie View A&M University. “It would certainly fit the demographics of east Houston,” he writes.

Mr. Gattis has one notion exactly right: Cities tend to be enlivened by the presence of colleges, and if planned well, college campuses tend to promote lively, pedestrian-oriented commercial districts around them. That couldn’t hurt Houston, which tends to score poorly among urbanists. (Although some, like Mr. Gattis, challenge those rankings. One’s perspective might depend on politics more than aesthetic sense.)

Gattis’s musings were spurred by an article in the Houston Chronicle in which various architects, city planners, and local officials gave their thoughts about what to do with the land. Many of them exhibit an eagerness to build something as soon as possible, with a dearth of imagination about what that might be. The usual stuff tops the list: retail, entertainment, and residential.

For that reason, I was enchanted by the recommendation from Susan Rogers, director of the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston’s architecture school.

“I would hope that the site will be developed over time, with different designers, developers, and builders for different aspects such as housing, commercial, etc.,” she wrote. “This would allow the area to develop a patina—a contextual sense of time that many of our older neighborhoods have today—and that is difficult to generate in an area built all at the same time for exactly the same market.”

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