Published On: Tue, Jun 13th, 2017

FAU Looks to Shed Commuter School Label with Plans for College Town

By: Jack Rubin

fauFlorida Atlantic University is one of the fastest growing schools in the nation, rapidly expanding right here in Boca Raton. Large-scale questions and concerns about the future of FAU in Boca have come with the university’s sudden growth.

Of the close to 30,000 Owl undergraduate students, just 17 percent live in college housing. 25,596 students are enrolled at the primary Boca Raton campus, yet the campus only offers housing for 4,000 students.

Acknowledging reality, the university is a commuter school. A city report on the “University District” that analyzed Boca Raton’s traffic issue cited “FAU’s historic positioning as a commuter campus.” However, as FAU gains national appeal with its growing prestige (and proximity to the beach), it needs to become a real, residential college campus.

The City of Boca Raton is moving forward with plans to give the city a college town around FAU. Due to increased relations between the university and city officials, the two sides are cooperating to advance the project. A mile-long portion of NW 20th Street would be the center of a rebranded “University District”. The stretch spans from the FAU campus entrance on NW 20th Street to Dixie Highway on its east end. The city most recently produced a 17-page full “University District” report in conjunction with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council (TCRPC).

December’s meeting that discussed the University District was the first direct meeting between the university and city officials since 2009. Relations between the university and Boca Raton will have vast effects on if and how these plans are implemented.

FAU President John Kelly and Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie have joined forces on the development plan. Students from an FAU architecture course won Kelly over two years ago with a model of what the redesigned street could feature. Suggestions included new restaurants, apartments, walkways, and shops.

Boca Raton residents and Florida Atlantic students alike will be the first to acknowledge that Boca is not close to being a “college town”. Such a change will not happen overnight either, despite FAU’s expansion in the city. With, as Kim DeLaney of the TCRPC put it, “A majority of the students are traveling in during the day and traveling out in the afternoon,” it is tough to build campus identity. Plans to develop a part of Boca into a student-friendly district have circulated for years, but are now finally coming to fruition.

fau 2Both the university and city hope that a place for students to walk around and hang out near campus would entice more students to live on campus.

“I think the commuting aspect contributes to a cultural disconnect for students, but a college town environment could help form that connection,” FAU junior Jake Elman said.

Local stores are embracing the prospects of a younger crowd on 20th Street. For example, It’s Owl Time is FAU’s official merchandise store.

“I think it’s great,” owner Mark Noll said. “I’m excited. I mean, that’s the reason why I opened up in this space, because we’ve been hearing that [20th Street redevelopment] for probably ten years. It seems like they’re getting closer than they ever were before. I welcome it, and this store is perfect for that type of activity, so obviously we think it’s great.”

Situated next door to It’s Owl Time is Munchiez, a sandwich shop targeted at a younger audience. Co-founder Pete Cafone saw this coming.

“With the expansion of FAU and this area, we were trying to make sure that established ourselves in the area,” he said.

Despite these FAU-centered stores, an underlooked part of a college modernization of 20th Street is some of the current businesses operating in the area. The city’s report repeatedly references that 20th Street “lacks identity” and does not fit into the campus at all. Kim DeLaney emphasized the lack of campus and street identity.

“When you’re on the 20th Street corridor you don’t know that youre heading to any particular destination; you just all of a sudden arrive and see a sign that says FAU,” she said.

The city report furthered this idea, saying that “As one of the ‘front doors’ to the university, there should be branding with signage, landscaping, amenities, and possibly an architectural theme.”

Mayor Haynie hopes that the renovation of the street would provide incentives for property owners to “redevelop.” Some of the businesses on 20th Street would not fit into the university’s vision of a college town, becoming roadblocks to the venture. The City has not commented on how they they plan on dealing with existing businesses.

A college town expansion is no small step for this city. The fact of the matter could be that Boca Raton is not ready for a college campus explosion. Drugs and underage alcohol consumption are an issue on any college campus, and, as FAU expands, concerns are no different. University Park, an off campus housing complex on 20th Street, has struggled with drug trading in its apartments. The city’s report acknowledges off-campus housing safety struggles and adds that “[the] University Park property has generated a disproportionate amount of police and fire calls for service, nearly tripling the number of calls/unit as compared to other multi-family housing projects.”

In its decision to continue planning, the City of Boca Raton hired a private consultant. The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council recommended an increased police presence along the corridor and near student housing areas.

“The City and FAU should work together to develop model public/private agreements to address the management and oversight of off-campus student housing projects,” the report reads.

The center of NW 20th Street is located just 1.4 miles from the Boca Raton Police Station, a figure that will certainly aid the proposal’s safety concerns. The Council placed a massive emphasis on increased communications between the City and FAU concerning everything from transportation to student housing.

Plans to give FAU a college town are finally moving forward. With the City of Boca Raton and its major university seeing eye to eye, FAU will continue to expand as one of the fastest-growing schools in the nation.

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