Loyola University Chicago Rejuvenates Urban Campus – Energizes Institution

Jennifer Clark recalls the Loyola University Chicago of the late 1990s. If you were walking down the street, your view of Loyola was sometimes a concrete wall or a loading dock, says Clark, Loyola's associate vice president for campus-community planning. We literally turned our back on the community.

A decade of campus changes not only reoriented those views, it refocused Loyola’s own vision—deepening the mission of this private, faith-based institution to serve both its students and the greater community. The physical transformation became a springboard for new academic partnerships, a new sustainability-based curriculum, a stronger relationship with neighbors and city officials and a renewed identity for the entire institution.

Today, Loyola enjoys a more attractive, cohesive Lake Shore Campus that engages its students, welcomes the community and reflects its strong environmental commitment. Enrollment is up. Fundraising is up. Even the university’s reputation is up. “We’ve established ourselves as an anchor institution,” says Clark. “Now we can continue to build on all these positive changes. It’s a very different place than it was even a decade ago.”

Rebounding From Troubled Times

Founded as a private Catholic college in 1870, Loyola University Chicago has grown into one of the largest Jesuit universities in the United States, with nearly 16,000 current students and more than 150,000 alumni. It has three campuses throughout the Chicago metropolitan area; its main Lake Shore Campus occupies 34 acres on the city’s north side, with enviable frontage on Lake Michigan.

Yet the institution struggled in the 1990s, after a financial split from the Loyola University Medical Center cut the university’s funding and sent it into a downward spiral. By 1999, Loyola’s enrollment was at an all-time low and its financial situation was equally grim, with an operating deficit of more than $50 million.

Not surprisingly, the physical infrastructure suffered, too, with several buildings in poor condition and a host of other problems. Decades of disjointed development resulted in a fragmented Lake Shore Campus that lacked logical organization or any recognizable central core. Surface parking lots claimed valuable space. Busy roads and streets of parked cars made pedestrian circulation awkward and dangerous. From a design perspective, it had the look and feel of a commuter school.

As Loyola began its turnaround under new president Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., it embarked on an ambitious fundraising and capital improvement plan. In 2005, it turned to SmithGroupJJR to craft a framework plan that would create a more unified and space-efficient campus. Less than a decade later, the plan has transformed the institution on several fronts.

A Stronger Sense of Place

While thousands of Loyola students lived on campus, it didn’t feel that way. Housing stock had been purchased incrementally, so it varied widely in quality and location. To create a more purposeful residential zone, the university analyzed everything it had acquired over the last decade— selling some, renovating some and razing some. “We looked at efficiencies, economies of scale and how we could improve housing to make it more appealing to students,” explains Clark. “Now housing is consolidated at the south end of campus, forming more of a residential neighborhood.”

That made available some valuable space in the center of campus (as did eliminating those surface parking lots), which could then be devoted to developing a more classic campus core focused on learning and enrichment. New academic buildings like the Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons now complement iconic Loyola landmarks like the Madonna della Strada Chapel. This new campus core creates an intellectual and spiritual hub, advancing Loyola’s Jesuit mission of expanding knowledge in service to humanity.

The plan also made open quad spaces a priority, which had been missing from the original campus vernacular. Now the campus core features plazas, seating areas, native landscaping, greenspaces for recreation and events, and a lush garden showcasing the lakefront and the chapel. This interplay of buildings and open spaces conveys a sense of tradition that had been lacking before.

Although the campus footprint is considerably smaller than many universities its size, “Everything feels more purposeful, more unified,” notes Clark. The result is a campus that seems elegant and peaceful, yet remains vibrantly intertwined with its urban surroundings.

Improved Town-Gown Ties

In keeping with its Jesuit commitment to social justice, Loyola University Chicago strives to blur the boundaries between the private institution and its public neighbors. The open campus perimeters mean city residents can easily share its Lake Michigan shoreline; Loyola even took an unusual stance in private higher education of encouraging a city bike route through its property.

Loyola has been equally forthcoming with the surrounding community when it comes to sharing its framework plan. Unlike a public university, most of Loyola’s plans require the approval of multiple government agencies and the buy-in of a concerned neighborhood. “We have a very transparent relationship with our community organizations,” notes Clark. The university actively seeks their input, meeting quarterly with a Lakeshore Advisory Council that brings community voices to the table.

When Loyola advocated for the Devon-Sheridan tax incremental financing (TIF) district, the often-controversial financing tool won approval with the support of the community. Along with improving communications,Loyola’s transformation also vastly improved the physical interface between the campus and community. New buildings like the Michael R. and Marilyn C. Quinlan Life Sciences Education and Research Center feature dual entrances, fronting both the Sheridan Avenue “city side” and the campus West Quad.

The reoriented Chicago Transit Authority station hosts live music and a farmer’s market. Rather than scurrying past loading docks, students now frequent street-level cafes and sandwich shops. The businesses provide jobs and services for both students and the community—and service Loyola’s bottom line, too. “Retail helps the neighborhood economy, and gives us some opportunities to generate revenue that isn’t on the backs of our students,” says Clark.

Safely Connecting People and Place

Several city streets bisect Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus, including busy arterials like Sheridan Road, which routes more than 35,000 vehicles per day. “Very little of that traffic is generated by the university,” explains Kana Wibbenmeyer, Loyola’s assistant vice president of facilities. The majority of students live on campus or commute by bus or train; a public transit pass is included in tuition. Nearly twothirds of faculty and staff live within a fivemile radius. Many of the apartment buildings that had been contributing to traffic and parking problems have been purchased by the university and put to other uses.

Thanks to its stronger, collaborative relationship with the city and surrounding community, Loyola was able to move forward with some ambitious improvements to improve circulation safety and efficiency. A city block abutting Sheridan Road transformed into St. Ignatius Community Plaza, an open pedestrian mall that provides safe, unimpeded access to academic buildings, student housing and café market spaces. With native plantings and permeable paving, the plaza sustainably manages stormwater while also providing a relaxing respite from urban activity.

St. Ignatius Community Plaza functions as a shared public space that is largely car-free except for delivery and emergency vehicles. Loyola headed off most of the concerns the community had about loss of parking and vehicle circulation when it temporarily closed the street while constructing three new university buildings. “I think that lessened the anxiety of the neighbors,” notes Clark. Loyola recently won approval for a similar project, converting a block of Winthrop Avenue at the south end of campus into a Dutch-style woonerf or “complete street”—a multi-use corridor that downplays the emphasis on personal vehicles.

Expanding the Promise of Sustainability

Loyola is not shy about its efforts to reduce cars and seek out more environmentally conscious campus improvements. “Environmental justice is very important to us,” explains Wibbenmeyer. “You’re not going to see us encouraging vehicle use. You’re not going to see us using non-native plants. It’s intrinsic in every decision we make.”

The university has signed on to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and Chicago’s Clean Air Counts initiative; the Sierra Club named Loyola number four in its “Top 10 Greenest Colleges” list. It’s no coincidence that the new buildings on St. Ignatius Community Plaza feature the Institute of Environmental Sustainability and the Center for Sustainable Urban Learning.

As part of its transformation, Loyola has created not only a new core curriculum on environmental issues, but an entire green learning community: Classrooms, laboratories and residence halls feature highly sustainable designs like geothermal energy and gray water reuse, in a striking new facility capped with a curved glazed “ecodome.” The institution’s commitment to environmental justice is evident in degree programs like Environmental Policy; Conservation and Restoration Ecology; and Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture.

Some of Loyola’s most impressive environmental achievements aren’t so readily apparent. The new quads, pedestrian plazas and wealth of green roofs (55,000 square feet, more than any other university in the nation) mask a remarkable stormwater management system. In the past, runoff pouring from Loyola’s impervious streets and parking lots created flooding problems and sent more than 6 million gallons of water annually into Chicago’s storm sewer system and Lake Michigan.

It was an issue of concern to city officials and an obstacle to future development. Now an array of underground detention and bio-infiltration systems cleanse the water and divert more than 70 percent of it from Chicago’s overtaxed storm sewer system. Loyola’s stormwater management solution was such a remarkable testament to the university’s environmental ethics that, on a subsequent project, the City of Chicago granted Loyola a stormwater variance for only the second time in the city’s history.

“At Loyola we talk about cura personalis— caring for the whole person,” explains Wibbenmeyer. “We strive to create an experience for our students that encourages them to thrive academically and socially, as good citizens and neighbors. What we’ve accomplished on the Lake Shore Campus very much complements those ideals.” As the university continues its successful fundraising campaign to “Reimagine Loyola,”that now seems like an intrinsic part of its mission, rather than a distant dream.

About the Author
Doug Kozma, RLA, ASLA is a Principal and co-leader of SmithGroupJJR’s Campus Planning Practice. He has worked for a wide spectrum of private and public higher education clients throughout the U.S., including Baylor University, Temple University, and Arizona State University. To learn more visit www.smithgroupjjr.com/practice_areas/campus.