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Classroom Crowding

Sprawling campuses are a boon for students and the city -- up to a point

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Even once-tiny schools have begun metastasizing, staking out ever-larger parcels of the city. Should we send out the biplanes?

Point Park University will soon occupy almost two full blocks of Downtown, creating an "Academic Village" (gym, residence halls, park) and relocating its Playhouse facility from Oakland.

Chatham University last month became the largest campus around, thanks to a gift of a 388-acre farm in Richland Township. Chatham also announced the acquisition of an office building at the corner of Penn and Fifth avenues: The school plans to expand its academic space, along with purchasing the last of the nearby apartment buildings it doesn't already own or lease.

Duquesne, which has been cloistered on its Bluff, opened the Power Center down on Fifth Avenue this spring (with rec facilities, a Barnes and Noble, juice bar and restaurant) and has more plans for the rest of that Uptown block, as well as other acquisitions nearby.

The older Oakland monsters, Pitt and CMU, have been quiet by comparison -- at least recently. After decades of sometimes-contentious property purchases, the University of Pittsburgh last year published a 12-year, billion-dollar improvement plan in which the words "expansion" and "construction" hardly appear. The major exception: planned athletic facilities at the top of campus, occupying 12 acres that took years to wrest from the city.

Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon's land purchases have inched toward Craig Street in recent years, and CMU's provost told reporters that the street might become "a Harvard Square for us."

"He was talking more about banners and signage -- more of a 'look and feel' change than 'We are going to buy all the properties and turn it into CMU,'" explains CMU spokesperson Ken Walters.

But Craig Street merchants are wary. "We've seen this before," says Jeff Yandora, owner of the Oakland Phantom of the Attic. "Both universities are already eating up Oakland."

"Don't like it," says Steve Hnat, of Top Notch Art Centre. "We're competing with CMU" as a purveyor of art supplies. "Once they control everything, they will determine who they want and who they don't want" as retail outlets. He says the university tried to "pressure" his family to sell their building last summer. (CMU's Walters is unaware of any offer.) Hnat also fears "more money going out of the city," since universities, like most nonprofits, don't pay property taxes on non-commercial portions of their land.

Even students can have mixed feelings about their institutions' growth. "It's hard for CMU to get new classrooms," says Paige Warman, a fourth-year CMU architecture student from Shadyside, sitting outside Kiva Han coffeeshop on Craig. But she says growth shouldn't "destroy the fabric that exists on Craig Street."

"What's the right size for an urban university?" asks Pitt law professor Mike Madison, whose Pittsblog (www.pittsblog.blogspot.com) has often addressed this conundrum. On Craig, "there's obviously a balance" between businesses that support students and businesses that support everyone else. But if "Craig Street gets so oriented to CMU that it's no longer a service to the community," that's a problem, Madison warns.

Neighborhoods usually just want universities as partners instead of interlopers. Ora Lee Carroll, head of East Liberty Concerned Citizens, was set at press time to meet with Chatham's president. Carroll planned to ask that Chatham's plans for its new Penn Avenue acquisition include helping local high-schoolers -- by offering tutoring and other services. In the past, big developments haven't helped residents, she says: "We didn't want the same thing to spin all over again. We wanted to meet with them and make sure they knew about us."

Chatham spokesman Paul Kovach wouldn't comment on a future meeting, though he's previously said Chatham would put health-sciences and architecture students inside Chatham's newly acquired structure. And he points out that the city's nine universities already contribute much to Pittsburgh. A 2005 estimate compiled by the colleges valued their annual contribution at $3.2 billion.

Madison says universities can substitute for reduced city taxes by doing even more of their own campus policing and maintenance. And he's seen "tangible contributions to Oakland" from Pitt. He points to Sennott Square and other Forbes Avenue developments that have "transformed" this retail strip.

Similarly, he says, "Point Park has the potential to be a positive, anchoring contributor to the revitalization of Downtown, even if it has the short-term effect of taking some properties off the tax list." And "[i]deally the Duquesne development will bring people out of Downtown up toward Uptown."

But is it something the area truly needs, as opposed to services Duquesne's neighbors have been clamoring for? If the Duquesne project succeeds, Madison says, "Other businesses would be motivated to move into the area. Businesses follow businesses."

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