The Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 27, 1999
September 27, 1999
VOL. 29, NO. 5


Behind the Making of a Master Plan

By Dennis O'Shea
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Many visitors to Homewood are pleasantly surprised. They don't expect flowering trees, quiet gardens, wide open green spaces and Georgian architecture on an urban campus.

Those are their first impressions.

Then they notice the 18-wheelers competing with pedestrians for access to Levering Hall. Service trucks pulled up on sidewalks. A "temporary" building that has stood almost since World War II. A road network that defines the concept "You can't get there from here."

"The first impression is the most important one for us," said Paul White, director of undergraduate admissions. "People are amazed that our campus is as beautiful as it is."

But there are problems that most of us who live and work here every day just put up with. White and his admissions staff, though, see those problems through the eyes of prospective freshmen and their parents:

Barely a hint or a clue, even on Charles Street, that one has arrived at The Johns Hopkins University.

Visitor parking that's often overrun by non-visitors.

An almost complete absence of signs to get newcomers from place to place.

Daily games of driver-pedestrian "chicken" along the "death lane," at Charles Street and Art Museum Drive, along Wyman Park and San Martin drives, and even on campus roads.

Fixing problems like those, White says, "would make us even more competitive" with the likes of Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Emory and others who are already paying attention to similar issues. Not to mention making daily life a lot more pleasant for the rest of us.

With a new student arts center under construction and the Biomedical Engineering Institute's Clark Hall up next, to be followed by a Hodson Trust-funded classroom building, a student recreation center, a nuclear magnetic resonance facility and lots more down the road, the problems are only going to get harder to fix.

That's why President William R. Brody, the university administration and the Homewood deans chose this time to commission a new Homewood campus master plan. Change and growth are inevitable, they reasoned, and, if handled well, can result in a campus that's not only larger but more attractive and more human as well.

They hired the Baltimore architecture firm of Ayers/Saint/Gross to lead a yearlong process that began last spring. After hundreds of hours of interviews with faculty, students and staff in recent months, ASG and the university's leadership have reached some tentative conclusions and are looking for reaction and feedback. Here is a brief summary. More details will be available at a campus-wide town meeting on Sept. 30 [see box below for details].

The Status Quo

ASG's interviews uncovered widespread agreement that the current campus--developed largely in conformance with a master plan that dates back to 1904--is a gem that needs polishing, not recutting.

"The core campus is as beautiful as the central campus of any university in America, and it did grow out of that original plan," said Adam Gross, principal of ASG.

But the interviews, along with hours spent tramping through Wyman Park, navigating the steam tunnels under Gilman Hall and charting classroom usage stats and the locations of loading docks, also reveal that nearly 100 years of development has resulted in some mistakes along with the singular successes.

Among ASG's observations:

The campus's natural systems are deteriorating. Woodlands, water quality and stream character are threatened.

The aesthetic character of the campus is inconsistent with the stature of the university. The public face of the campus--its presentation to Charles Street, University Parkway and other surrounding streets--is weak. The pedestrian environment deteriorates outside the central quads. Informal recreation spaces are scarce.

The campus does not have a strong physical relationship with surrounding neighborhoods. Even as the university spreads to the east, Charles and University are seen more as dividing the university from the neighborhoods than uniting it with them.

The campus is hard to find and hard to get to. Once you're there, it's hard to find your way around and hard to get somewhere even if you do know where you're going.

Vehicles are pervasive. There are significant pedestrian hazards. The road network is confusing and has no organized hierarchy of primary and secondary routes. Visitor parking is insufficient and disorganized. Delivery trucks and other service vehicles are not handled appropriately.

The Principles

Given these observations, President Brody and the leadership adopted three principles to guide ASG's drafting of a new campus plan. They said the plan should direct physical growth at Homewood in a way that:

Preserves and enhances existing natural systems, such as woodlands, open space and streams.

Improves the aesthetic character of the campus to a level consistent with the stature of Johns Hopkins.

Strengthens the university's relationship with surrounding neighborhoods.

The Concept

ASG's concept plan, a sort of "first draft" master plan to be presented at the Sept. 30 town meeting, focuses on three distinct but interwoven sectors of campus.

The "natural systems" section is largely to the west, rising out of the stream valley and woods of Wyman Park, but extending green and grassy fingers eastward even as far as Homewood House and the Beach. "Our aim is to make the woodlands more visible and usable," Gross said. "We want to draw a line in the sand as to how far we can develop to the west, pick a few building sites and say, 'That's it.'"

Natural Systems

Restore and protect the integrity of the wooded stream valley as a visual, recreational and educational resource.

  • Minimize additional impervious area
  • Remove invasive, exotic species
  • Initiate replacement canopy of woodland
  • Develop a pathway system connecting the stream valley to the campus
  • Stop encroachment into the wooded ravine and extend the woodland fingers into core campus
  • The "core campus" section is built around the upper, lower and residential quads; it is here that today's haphazard circulation patterns bring pedestrians into conflict with vehicles and both natural and architectural beauty into conflict with utility.

    ASG's plans for the sector are too detailed to address in full here, but the most dramatic would virtually eliminate daily traffic from the core. Visitors, students and employees in cars could approach the campus from the north, south or west but would be diverted to new parking structures. A garage might be hidden under a grassy quad created on what is now Garland Field. Another could be wrapped by new buildings on the Wyman Park Medical Center property or by new grandstands at the baseball diamond. One might be tucked into a hill adjacent to the Hopkins Club. "Nothing is too insignificant to be well-designed," Gross said. "A parking lot is a building, and it should be as beautiful as any other building." With most vehicles diverted to the parking structures and removed from the center of campus, roadways there can be converted to attractive brick walkways still wide enough for fire trucks. Anyplace on campus, Gross pointed out, can be reached from another by a five-minute walk.

    Core Campus

    Improve the aesthetic character of campus to a level that is consistent with the stature of the institution.

  • Diminish the presence of vehicles
  • Extend the open space structure as connected courts, quads and gardens framed by buildings
  • Strengthen the architectural coherence with buildings of consistent scale and character
  • Improve the landscape treatment of the existing quads
  • Enrich the experience of moving through the campus with additional art and water
  • The third sector is the "urban village," starting at the library and student arts center and extending eastward well into Charles Village, even to the university's new property at the Eastern High School site. The concept plan calls for the university to cooperate--as it already has been doing--with implementation of the new Charles Village master plan and a planned redesign of Charles Street. "And we should integrate the university more into Charles Village," Gross said. "We need to identify [a wider array of university programs] and [potential office] sites so the university can be more integrated into the community."

    Urban Village

    Apply the university's resources to improve the vitality and character east of Charles Street as a college town within the city.

  • Strengthen the physical relationship with Charles Village
  • Improve pedestrian linkages across Charles Street
  • Engage in the Charles Street redesign effort to promote university interests
  • Expand and diversify the programmatic use of university properties in Charles Village
  • Support the retail vitality of St. Paul Street

  • Next Steps

    As the architects and the faculty, staff and student groups working with them assess campus reaction to the concept plan, they will also be leaping into the next phase of the project.

    Gross and his team call it the "precinct studies." Breaking the campus down into manageable chunks, they will look at those areas in detail, one by one. "This will test the concept plan against the hard realities of bus turnarounds, utility lines, etc.," Gross said.

    The project team will also seek to refine the half-dozen or so areas identified as potential sites for future buildings and develop construction standards with an eye to aesthetics and coherence. They will design a signage system and a consistent "look" for the campus's outdoor spaces, everything from benches to recycling receptacles.

    By May, all that will come together in a final plan, to be presented to the board of trustees and the campus community.

    Full implementation of the campus plan will take years, certainly, perhaps decades. But work on some aspects of the plan will have to begin soon, even immediately, as new building projects begin. "There are so few opportunities to grow," Gross said. "If we don't rethink parking and roads, you're going to run out of space."

    Town meeting Sept. 30

    An all-Homewood town meeting on the master plan will be held in Arellano Theater in Levering Hall from noon to 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 30. Participants are invited to bring their lunches.

    President William R. Brody; Provost Steven Knapp; and the three Homewood deans--Ilene Busch-Vishniac of the School of Engineering, Herbert Kessler of the School of Arts and Sciences and Ralph Fessler, interim dean of the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education--will be joined by architects from Ayers/Saint/Gross to report on the first months of the planning process and present a detailed explanation of the "concept plan" outlined in this story.

    They will seek feedback from faculty, students and staff, both at the meeting and afterward through e-mail links at the project's Web site,