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Sunday, April 14, 2024 — Houston, TX

In response: Urban integration not required at Rice

By Robert Duffield     9/16/15 5:43am

In response to last week's opinion by Justin Raine, Rice must improve its urban integration.

No. Certainly the “must” is not justified. Whether urban integration would improve Rice or not, it is not required.

The bulk of the editorial arguments presented are poorly supported. It is an old adage that you don't pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon, but since it was a signed editorial, it must be the opinion of Justin Raine alone, not the paper as an institution.

The Kinder Institute study is for Houston as a whole, not the specific neighborhood around Rice University. As a sophomore, Justin Raine may not remember the brouhaha about the “Tower of Traffic” that was intended for Bissonnet and Ashby. Judging by that, urban integration would not be seen as a positive by Rice’s neighbors. Comparing Rice to a gated community is a valid comparison. It is by virtue of its institutional mission as a university, set apart from its surroundings. This both nurtures the creativity of its professors and protects students from the potential brutalities of modern life as they become who they will be. A positive aspect of the separation rarely discussed is the protection of the neighbors from rampaging young adults who have not yet learned restraint in their celebrations. (Picture NOD as a house party near Poe Elementary) As an asset, who does Rice belong to? It is a private university, not a public one, so it cannot be said to be an asset of the City of Houston, save in a figurative sense, and calling it “revered” overstates in kind and degree. Rice is certainly valued and respected in that figurative sense, and also in an economic one. Any listing of local “alums made good” would make that abundantly clear, but they are not typically worshiped, which “revered” implies. Ima Hogg, Dominique DeMenil and the Astrodome are revered.

Any integration of Rice and the Texas Medical Center would eventually subsume Rice within the much larger institution across the street. Rice has in the past considered closer affiliation with Baylor Medical School in the TMC, but that was rejected. Perhaps Justin Raine as a sophomore was not aware of this, as it happened before he arrived at Rice. One thing that TMC would immediately want is the available parking spaces at Rice. The other aspects of Rice/TMC collaboration are adequately implemented without physical integration.

Rice should not replace the thick vegetative border. It reduces traffic noise and provides unstructured space and wildlife habitat necessary to the current feel of Rice campus. The suggestion of wide paved sidewalks holds some appeal, but these could not be installed without removal of the spreading live oaks which give Main Street its distinctive character. Trying to preserve the trees while adding solid pavement results in broken sidewalks; take a look at the sidewalks on the north side of Rice Boulevard. Retail development on Main facing campus would be difficult as Hermann Park, churches and hospital parking garages occupy that space. None of these will volunteer to be made into a Starbucks. A commemorative public plaza on private land is a nonsensical suggestion, simply setting the stage for potential public/private friction in the future. The idea of improving pedestrian entrances to campus and adding a B-Cycle station are the only suggestions that make much sense. Students, faculty and staff would benefit from these improvements.

Rice Stadium. Without parking, the stadium is useless for large events. If Justin Raine wants to kill NCAA sports at Rice University, getting rid of the parking lots would be the quickest way to do it. Suggesting that parking garages are somehow more pedestrian friendly than surface parking is naïve. Parking garages pose different dangers than surface parking lots, but both have dangers. Cars moving around are the main problem for pedestrians, not parked ones. The parking garage under the Jones School is an interesting experiment in the evolution of parking at Rice, one I think has not clearly indicated that one type of parking is superior to the other. I understand, you think surface parking lots are ugly.

To look to the University of Texas for how Rice might revise its own borders assumes their situations are comparable. They are not. UT is a public institution of 40,000 undergraduates, 12,000 post-graduates and 24,000 faculty and staff on a main campus of 420 acres. It has a strong greek system and commuter student population and is located in the city of Austin, Texas, population under 1 million. It is a big fish in a middle sized pond, with lots of buildings and little open space. In contrast, Rice has 3,900 undergraduates, 2,500 post-graduates and 2,800 faculty and staff on a main campus of 285 acres. It has a residential college system and few if any commuter students, and is located in the city of Houston, Texas, population 2.2 million. Rice is a small fish in a big pond, with a fair number of buildings and some remaining open space. Students attending UT can look forward to a good education, and ample opportunities to party. Students attending Rice can look forward to a good education and only occasional party opportunities.

To advocate that Rice needs a vibrant street life misapprehends the existing Rice culture and Rice’s chosen role in its home city. Rice is not the place where you come to play, it is the place where you come to learn. The relative separation from the surrounding city is part of what makes that possible. That the gates are open and the hedges have holes in them is right and appropriate, but is important to have them.

Robert Duffield graduated from Baker College in 1987.

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