The absence of a "college town" adjacent to UB with quaint bookstores, coffee shops, eclectic restaurants and specialty retailers is often noted by UB administrators as an obstacle to building a North Campus community.
"Most great universities have this kind of thing either right on campus or across the street," said Cliff Wilson, associate vice president for Student Affairs.
University administrators are attempting to bring a college town atmosphere to the North Campus by creating a "promenade" of shops, student apartments and a host of services that would link the currently isolated Ellicott complex with the academic spine.
The presently-dubbed Lee Road Master Plan was the topic of three public meetings on the North and South campuses this week. Local architectural firm Stieglitz Snyder, selected to develop the Lee Corridor, presented design plans and fielded questions from the smattering of students and other interested parties who attended the meetings - about 40 total over the three days.
The plan, which would be constructed in several phases to accommodate campus needs as well as financial viability, calls for demolishing the University Bookstore and the Commons. Vendors currently located in the Commons would be offered space in the new structure prior to razing the buildings.
"The idea is really to enhance [the Commons] and make the services even better," said Robert Shepard, a Stieglitz Snyder partner and one of the presenters. "We think the plan would be even more successful in attracting merchants."
Among the proposed commercial venues to be included are: an expanded bookstore, a mini-supermarket, a coffee shop, a theater, a bank, a dry cleaners, a mail and packaging center, a gift shop and a "Friday's-like" restaurant with a bar and outdoor seating. The intent, according to the project mission statement, is to create an "urban flavor" on the suburban Amherst campus.
Several public meeting participants expressed concern that such a large-scale commercial venture would hurt local businesses or conversely, that on-campus vendors would suffer from community competition.
"It's not to drain business away from other folks, but if there is a need and there is an opportunity to build on campus, why not look into that?" Shepard responded.
While Commons lease holders and the University Bookstore have already been appraised of the master plan, Shepard said the architectural firm has not yet approached community retailers.
Wilson said that local businesses have begun to informally come forward about joining the project. Tops, for example, expressed an interest in opening a satellite grocery store on Lee Road.
David Stieglitz, an architectural partner and also a UB alumnus, said he believed it would be relatively easy to attract businesses to the Lee Corridor because of the "critical mass of population this site is going to have 24 hours a day."
The largest amount of square footage in the structure - 1.4 million gross square feet - is devoted to housing, followed by retail vendors and a recreational sports center. The Master Plan incorporates one-bedroom, two-bedroom, four-bedroom and studio apartments which would bring 3,000 more student residents to North Campus.
The idea, according to Wilson, is that any UB student who wanted to could live on campus. Freshmen, however, would still be required to live in the traditional residence halls, an atmosphere more conducive to forging friendships and building community for new students, said Wilson.
The Lee Corridor will also feature an Alumni House/Faculty Club, student services, a childcare facility and a visitor's center.
The vacant field between the Student Union and the Center for the Arts, now home to various club fairs, carnivals and impromptu Frisbee games, is expected to house a university hotel.
At the South Campus public meeting, one student expressed concern about maintaining a steady flow of patrons to the hotel in light of the multitude of hotels in surrounding Amherst.
"We don't see it as a traditional hotel," said Shepard. "We're calling it a hotel/guest lodging."
Shepard said the multi-purpose hotel would only offer 100 beds, and would also double as a conference center.
"This is a pretty famous university and it has increased intellectual credibility in the United States and throughout the world," said Stieglitz. He pointed to highly-renowned UB facilities such as the Earthquake Research Center which could draw scholars and researchers to North Campus - and hence clientele for the proposed hotel.
The project will also house a health services facility offering examinations and counseling in addition to first-aid, a popular move among students and one of the election platforms of UB's current Student Association executive board. The facility would supplement, not replace, Michael Hall on South Campus.
"We think since the majority of students live on North ... we need health services here," said Wilson. The addition would "offer the full range of services offered at Michael Hall," he said.
Several of the students in attendance raised the issue of parking, which is already a well-known problem at UB. Many students feared that the additional on-campus housing and retail shops would dramatically increase campus automotive traffic, further exacerbating the current lack of convenient parking.
Stieglitz said that in addition to the 2,570 new parking spaces slated to accommodate the expanded services, the Lee Corridor would be "more pedestrian-friendly."
If there are residential, commercial and structural facilities in close proximity, Stiegliz contended, cars become unnecessary.
"People are more likely to want to walk, rather than driving everywhere they need to go on North Campus. ... If you don't need the car, you won't want to use it," he said.
Wilson stressed that the architect's renderings and the projects details are not yet cast in stone and that plans will be refined based on stakeholder input.
"Maybe it gets scaled back some if it gets too expensive," Wilson said. "We don't want to build something no one will use."
The university intends the Lee Corridor to be a self-sustaining project, maintained without UB or state dollars. Construction and management costs will be offset with income generated by rental fees from students and vendors.
"I think it can be done with no impact on the state. ... This doesn't call for state dollars," said Wilson.
Students, faculty and other interested parties are encouraged to comment on the design proposals, which can be viewed at http://www.ub-housing.buffalo.edu/leepresent.shtml.