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Eddy Street Commons ‘unimaginative’

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I am concerned with the proposed residential/retail development, the Eddy Street Commons, that is planned by Notre Dame and the Kite Realty Group for the land that is currently a small forest along Angela Boulevard. The apparent motivation to create a combined housing and shopping center located within a short walk to campus seems well-intentioned at first; a pedestrian “college town” for Notre Dame further integrating the South Bend and campus communities, a market-driven attempt at new urbanism in which students and faculty might easily travel through a full-service retail center between campus and home. I argue that this goal is flawed in its application and represents a profound failure of the imagination.

The scant woods that I refer to, which has managed to withstand the ravaging trample of more than 150 years of unqualified “development,” is nonetheless charming. The rolling slopes are home to stately trees, many of which were surely quite large by the time that Father Sorin first dug his stake into the ground in 1842. These trees are the fragile habitat for many now partially displaced animals such as red fox, owl, hawks, deer, opossum, raccoons and skunks.

Was the complete ensemble of campus voices relevant to urban design and the impact of the development considered? Besides the commercially lucrative concept of mixed-use zoning, new urbanism also stresses infilling and brownfield remediation, principles easily applied to already cleared land such as the “five corners” intersection. These concepts are ignored in favor of deforestation. Did the Dome consult the expert opinions from the ranks of their own Ecology faculty concerning the effects of the proposed development? Although no Environmental Impact Statement is required by law, does the reality of the situation rationally warrant one? In light of the fact that people will be living on this land was there an appropriate assessment of the toxicity and heavy metal content of the power plant coal ash dump site in the center of the woods? If the fledgling maples lined up on old Angela in burlap soil balls ready for deployment into sidewalk planters along the proposed shopping center cost more than $2,000 per tree, what is the monetary worth of the 150+ year old trees which will be razed to build the development? For the self-proclaimed environmentalists among us I encourage you to remember that it is not just about saving tropical rainforests. It is also, perhaps more crucially, about saving the frayed and tattered threads of the frail natural space around you. Furthermore, a philosophical discontinuity exists between the Christian spiritual teachings of a modest and humble stewardship over the planet of God’s creation and a market-based approach to catholic solvency where land use manipulation is a tool to gain equity.

Yet many argue that a weakness of Notre Dame is the “lack of a college town feel.” This is a reference to the lack of a pedestrian shopping and recreative center near campus that is a common trait of so many other college towns. If one looks at some classic examples of such American college towns such as Ithaca, New York, Olympia, Washington or Madison, Wisconsin, these places too all struggle with the blight of overdevelopment; however the most appealing aspects of their character developed organically over a long period of time. Business districts with the most character have evolved slowly, allowing distinctiveness and heterogeneity unknown to the architectural monoculture of the Kinko-copied strip mall or the cookie cutter gated community. Other college towns put a premium on green space. For an excellent example of the ambient effect of green space on the feel of a town visit the Arboretum in Ann Arbor on the gentle banks of the Huron River.

In a statement released by a city official, it was noted that Notre Dame had “…expressed a willingness to be a developer in the community and participate further in the economic vitality of the area…” Is further sequestering campus by closing Juniper and creating a nationally franchised strip mall buffer between campus and the surrounding neighborhoods the best way to develop an integrated community and spur local economic vitality, or is it an attempt to ape the grotesque cash cow on Grape Road in Mishawaka? For an excellent example of a successful integration of local community and local business, visit the South Bend farmers’ market on any Saturday.

Earlier I described the proposed development of the Angela forest as a “failure of the imagination,” although I have offered no imaginative alternatives. If woodlands for woodlands’ own sake is unacceptable to the productivity-oriented, how about a small rugged biking trail, or a refuge for reflection in the form of a gazebo treehouse overlooking the woods, campus and downtown nestled among the eaves of the taller trees, or a public ropes course and outdoor exercise area among the trees, a small number of modest homes worked in around the existing trees, working with the already beautiful landscape, not replacing it? Commercial options? How about a quaint restaurant with forested patio seating?

Legends are formed through the test of time. Fortunately not all of Notre Dame’s were formed by muscle, games and plastic attempts at nostalgia. As the changing moment becomes memory that fades into history, then legend, we who were born into this “bigger-better-more” world must ask ourselves if smaller is good enough; do we want the reality of that last scrap of forest to fade from the moment into myth? I hope not.

Thomas Klepach is a graduate student in biochemistry. He can be contacted at tklepach@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.