This weekend, the University will sponsor free ice skating on North Campus in an attempt to dispel the notion that the campus is a lost abyss. There are worse ways to use our money. But as a North Campus denizen and an Architecture and Urban Planning student, I have to conclude that without more serious change in the University’s approach to the campus, efforts to re-brand it are bound to fall flat.

Frankly, we’d be better off if North Campus didn’t exist. The University could have chosen to grow up instead of out, keeping its original Central Campus footprint with some added expansion into the near-downtown neighborhoods. Ann Arbor’s skyline would look a bit different, and we wouldn’t see as many deer, but we’d have saved ourselves innumerable hours crammed into buses and countless calories consumed at Panda Express.

Unfortunately, in 1952 University planners still believed that cars would make the very concept of distance disappear, and felt wide open spaces were more necessary to human life than daily conveniences you could reach on foot. Back then, not much existed in Ann Arbor north of the Huron River, but that didn’t stop the University from buying itself a giant new campus in the middle of nowhere. The US-23 freeway was originally planned to run up Huron Parkway, so they might have been counting on being right near the off-ramp.

Whatever the weird logic of that decision, there’s no going back now. Yet that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to the North Campus that currently exists. Indeed, the University is realizing that the current state of the campus is a liability.

It seems candidates for faculty positions have complained North Campus doesn’t even feel like a part of Ann Arbor, setting off alarm bells among the deans anxious to recruit top talent in engineering and other disciplines that are housed in North Campus.

As a result, more substantive action — beyond ice rinks and hot air balloons — is underway. In 2008, the University completed a North Campus Master Plan Update that envisioned a more densely developed campus, with a walkable city block replacing the current car-oriented Northwood culs-de-sac. The University has also helped fund a study on improving the heinously overcrowded transit line between the campuses, though only after much coaxing from the city.
The University has also helped fund a study on improving the heinously overcrowded transit line between the campuses, though only after much coaxing; one City official I spoke with last year expressed exasperation that the University had to be persuaded to put up a paltry $50,000 for the project.

But none of this goes far enough. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the University is not the solution to North Campus; the University is the problem. The biggest issue with North Campus isn’t the absence of skating opportunities, but the pathetic lack of choices for basic goods like food, a direct result of the University’s monopolization of the 800-acre North Campus area.

My politics run left, but the dearth of decent conveniences on North Campus relative to Central is an excellent argument for the superiority of open markets in certain contexts. A single block of South University adjacent to Central Campus has more restaurants than the whole of North Campus. Perhaps half the late-night traffic on Broadway is pizza delivery vehicles smuggling contraband edibles onto campus, while long lunchtime lines for often sub-par food on North itself resemble those of 1980s Moscow. In fact, the Pierpont Commons basement is crony capitalism at its greasiest, since the University essentially auctions off fast food rights to the highest bidders.

To fill the North Campus abyss, the University could start by permitting food carts there. It should also consider selling real estate at key locations, such as the parking lots off Fuller Road, so that developers can meet demand for more stores and services there and the properties can contribute to Ann Arbor’s tax base.

As University Planner Susan Gott said, Ann Arbor might not need a second downtown like that of State Street, but the growth of the small shopping district at Plymouth Road and Murfin Avenue, which already contains a few excellent restaurants despite its distance from the campus’s core, indicates just how much of an afterthought North Campus’s people are under current University policy. Changing that would make students a lot happier, which is in the direct interest of the University. And heck, if new development brings a few bars within walking distance of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, I’m sure not complaining.

Joel Batterman can be reached at jomba@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.