Public Comment

Commentary: Town and Gown: Great Things Are Happening...Elsewhere

By Doug Buckwald and Anne Wagley
Tuesday July 11, 2006

Want to know how Gainesville, Florida, protects neighborhood residents during college football games? How Columbus, Ohio handles the problem of trash in neighborhoods near the Ohio State campus? How Colorado State University in Fort Collins responds to calls about off-campus student behavior problems? Or how police in Boulder, Colorado and Corvallis, Oregon handle disruptive student parties? So did we. That’s why we went to the conference on “Best Practices in Building University/City Relations” last month in Colorado. What we learned there kept our eyes wide open and our pens scratching notes as fast as we could write. We learned that cities across the United States and Canada handle these problems effectively and efficiently every day—in contrast to the typical inaction of our own city officials and UC Berkeley. 


Game Day in Gainesville 

Just about everybody loves football in Gainesville, where the University of Florida Gators’ stadium seats 90,000 spectators. The stadium is adjacent to residential neighborhoods, just like Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium, but in Gainesville, the city takes the safety and comfort of its residents seriously. On game days, when the population of the town swells to near double, the university pays for 40 extra on-duty police officers who patrol the neighborhoods near the stadium. These officers aggressively ticket any parking and traffic violations, and watch for litter, alcohol, and noise violations. They are empowered to block off residential streets with patrol cars, to protect neighborhoods. 

Satellite parking lots and shuttle busses are utilized to limit cars coming into town, and they are heavily used because they are convenient and are promoted with all ticket sales. The University of Florida recognizes that night games impose significant additional burdens on residents, so it limits these games to only two per year. There are no non-university football games or special events held at the stadium. And the university hires a crew to clean up after every game to guarantee that “by 10 a.m. the next day the town is spotless.”  

When we described how Berkeley handles football games, representatives from Gainesville found it difficult to believe us. In fact, as we described Berkeley’s policies on many issues during the three-day conference, the typical reaction was skepticism or outright disbelief. This shows how far out of step with the rest of the country Berkeley’s policies are in handling university problems.  


“Adopt-a-Street” and “The Great Sofa Roundup” 

As is true in many college towns, the student residential areas near Ohio State University were frequently marred by litter, graffiti, and other public nuisances. That is, until Sean McLaughlin developed a program to encourage student organizations to “adopt” streets in the off-campus neighborhoods. Now, OSU students cooperate to maintain their streets and improve the neighborhood quality of life. We believe that many residents of Berkeley’s Southside—who just experienced a massive trashing of their neighborhood by departing student tenants—would welcome a similar program and attitude.  

When we showed conference participants photos of the large piles of discarded furniture and garbage lining our streets—photos taken almost a month after the students had departed—can you guess what their reaction was? They couldn’t believe it. They had never let things get this bad in their own cities. CSU at Fort Collins has a program called “The Great Sofa Roundup.” During that event, everyone is invited to come to a central location and either drop off used furniture, or take some of it to furnish their new place. Items in any condition are accepted; furniture too damaged to be reused is taken to the dump. It’s the ultimate recycling program, and it’s a win-win solution for the city, the neighbors, and the students. 


Taming disruptive parties 

In many university towns, the student code of conduct applies to students living off campus as well as on campus. And many cities have enacted noise, parking, and trash ordinances which keep off-campus housing quiet and clean.  

In Syracuse, New York, the city enacted a “Nuisance Party Ordinance,” the violation of which results in a fine up to $500, and/or imprisonment of up to 15 days. Significantly, the police do not need a complaint from a citizen to act; rather, a citation may be issued if the police observe disorderly conduct, unlawful possession of an open container, furnishing alcohol to a minor, possession of alcohol by a minor, littering, obstructive parking, unlawfully loud noise, or property damage. Some cities in Colorado impose even stiffer fines—up to $1,000 for a first violation of a noise or public nuisance ordinance. Students are expected to know the laws, and warnings are not issued to first-time offenders.  

Imagine, if just a few of these laws had been in place in Berkeley, it wouldn’t have taken over 20 years and a trip to small claims court by 12 neighbors to shut down the notorious UC Chateau Co-op. 


University expansion and construction 

Our city has endured the continual expansion of the UC Berkeley campus ever since its inception in 1868, from the original 160 acres to over 1200. UC Berkeley continues to grab more and more office space and other institutional space throughout the city. Other universities have established healthier relationships with their host communities. University of Arizona at Tucson and the University of Colorado at Boulder both have fixed campus boundaries; the Boulder campus has not expanded in 50 years. Boundaries help city officials anticipate and fund their own infrastructure needs, help residents decide where to put down roots, and help businesses plan where to locate. 

Most universities abide by the land use regulations and construction codes established by their communities. The University of Arizona is currently doing major construction on campus adjacent to an established neighborhood. For this project and all others, their neighborhood liaison explained, they have a strict and enforceable construction code of conduct—and neighborhood residents receive prompt assistance if there are any violations. 


A bureaucratic miracle 

One of the main issues citizens contend with in college towns is finding out where to get help with specific problems. To address this difficulty, Anne Hudgens, the executive director for campus life at CSU Fort Collins, instituted a system in which the person on her staff who receives an initial request for assistance from a citizen must personally find the answer to their question, and call the person back to give them the information. Thus, the citizen makes only one call and does not get bounced around from department to department. Ms. Hudgens feels that it is important to respect the members of the community, and not waste their time. She claims that her system is working very well: there is greater accountability on her staff, and the public loves it. Imagine that!  


City-university liaisons  

Most of the universities represented at the conference have some type of campus/city coordinator, who handles citizen complaints. To guarantee his or her effectiveness in representing the public, this liaison operates independently of any city or university department. Notably, this is not considered a “public relations” job, but is a substantive and empowered position. This arrangement provides the public with a direct channel to handle everyday problems as well as long-term concerns. In Fort Collins, this position is jointly funded by the university and the city. Many universities consider this their single most important tool to enhance their interaction with residents. 


What about Berkeley? 

Last year, UC Berkeley established a chancellor’s task force to work on problems related to student alcohol abuse in the Southside. Their work has been productive, but it is limited to the impacts of student parties; the task force has no plans to address the other serious problems that residents face. But there is reason for hope—several representatives of the city and UC Berkeley attended the conference with us—and if they came away with the volumes of information, good ideas, and contacts we collected, we should soon see some major improvements in our own backyard! 

The University of California represents itself as a great university, dedicated to public service. It is long past time that they dedicated themselves to serving the public right here in the community we all share: Berkeley. 


Doug Buckwald and Anne Wagley presented their program, “Bear Territory: From Cub to Grizzly,” at the recent university/city relations conference sponsored by Colorado State University and the City of Fort Collins, Colorado.