Envisioning a vibrant ‘town center’ at Stanford

The Stanford Town Center Design Team recently completed its vision document, which provides the context, vision, program and design principles of the project to reimagine over time the White Memorial Plaza region as the “heartbeat” of the university.

The team leading the effort to reimagine the White Memorial Plaza region has three priorities for its vision: intellectual vitality, social engagement and community building.

Matthew Tiews, associate vice president for campus engagement, recently convened two meetings to provide updates on the preliminary findings of the Stanford Town Center Design Team. (Image credit: Trever Tachis)

Those three priorities serve as guideposts for the team, Matthew Tiews, associate vice president for campus engagement, said at two recent campus meetings about the project.

“As we look at different kinds of programs and offerings that we might want to create in the future in the White Memorial Plaza region, we want to keep coming back to those top three priorities and asking ourselves whether our programs are serving these goals,” he said.

Tiews convened the meetings to provide updates on the preliminary findings of the Stanford Town Center Design Team, which is charged with developing a new vision for the White Memorial Plaza region. Currently, the region includes a collection of buildings and open spaces, including Old Union, Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Tresidder Memorial Union, the bookstore and the post office.

“What we are asking ourselves is: What kinds of programs and activities do we want to be doing in this region and what infrastructure do we need to deliver those programs,” Tiews said.

The design team recently completed Stanford Town Center: A New Vision for the White Plaza Region, which includes the context, vision, program and design principles of the project. The team also completed an outline of broad ideas for potential future program “clusters,” including ways people might discuss ideas as they gather over food, informal ways for people to come together around cultural offerings, and new ways to use green space to enliven and support campus interactions. Both documents are available on the Stanford Town Center website.

Tiews said Stanford has hired LMN Architects, an architectural firm based in Seattle, to create a site framework plan for accommodating this vision. The firm has been asked to create different options for the university to consider, including scenarios that might be implemented in multiple phases. These options will give university leadership a framework for making decisions about the scope of the project both now and as it unfolds over time.

Last year, the design team reached out to the Stanford community for input by hosting 15 formal focus group meetings with different constituencies, holding a campus-wide town hall meeting, participating in more than 50 informal and small-group conversations, and inviting people to join the discussion through its website.

Tiews said the team also gained valuable insights from students enrolled in an architectural design studio course focused on the project that was offered fall quarter by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Next quarter, the Urban Studies Program in the School of Humanities and Sciences will offer a studio course also focused on the project.

“The program ideas that we heard in descending order of frequency were: number one, more, different, more interesting and different price points for food options; number two, a pub; and number three, a CVS,” Tiews said.

“While a CVS store might not sound exciting, what that says is that we are living here as a community together and we want places where we can get what we need in our daily life – and places where we can meet each other in serendipitous ways.”

The design team collected ideas for more than 800 programs last year. Out of this process it developed a vision that is informed by the community’s input and takes a point of view about strategic issues that will develop over time.

“One thing we heard a lot from students was about the lack of a night life – that’s a place where we can make a push,” Tiews said.

Tiews said the intense bike traffic in the region was a popular topic of discussion.

“Most people didn’t want continued bike traffic in the way it flows now,” he said, adding that the design team wants to make the town center a destination, not a thoroughfare.

He said the design team envisions a town center that will evoke the lively spaces people flock to when they leave their homes and neighborhoods and go downtown.

Tiews said the town center will be designed primarily for the campus community: the people who live, work and study together on campus. Other important audiences will include communities with ties to the university, such as alumni and neighbors, the global intellectual community, and prospective students and their parents.

“The first order of business is making sure our campus community feels at home and excited and energized about what’s happening there,” Tiews said.

He stressed that the project is not just about improving social life on campus but also about improving the academic environment at Stanford by creating places where informal intellectual conversations can take place – such as in a pub.

Tiews said people also told the design team that they want a place to get completely away from the stress of everyday life – a place to simply connect as humans. Tiews said many people spoke fondly of the bowling alley that was once located in Tresidder and the eatery next door that served beer and pizza.

He said the design team is working on pilot projects to test some of its program ideas, include a festival and a pop-up pavilion.

During the two campus meetings – one in Tresidder Memorial Union and one in the Stanford Faculty Club – attendees asked a variety of questions, including the fate of White Memorial Fountain (“the Claw”), which stands at the center of the plaza. Tiews said the fountain will be preserved, especially since it plays an important role in campus rituals.

Participants also asked about programs for graduate students with families, the name of the eventual town center, and how the university will handle the increased light and sound if the town center becomes a hub for nightlife.

Tiews said the design team will keep the Stanford community informed as the project progresses. He invited people to get involved by sharing ideas and feedback, volunteering to be part of a future focus group or joining its email list. To contact the design team, visit the Stanford Town Center website.