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Carleton and its neighbors, doing their best to stay friends

  • Article by: GRAISON HENSLEY CHAPMAN
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 25, 2014 - 3:00 PM

Many of Carleton College’s neighbors in the area south of the Northfield campus are former faculty, staff and alumni of the private liberal arts college. So last week, when Carleton officials introduced a 10-year plan for changes in the school’s facilities, they responded with mixed feelings about the school that helps to define their community but can also disrupt Northfield’s small town feeling.

The plan, rolled out at a public forum, calls for adding a building each for the sciences and arts, constructing “independent living” housing on campus for about 100 students and expanding Carleton’s signature arts center, which opened three years ago in a mostly residential area two blocks south of campus.

If approved by Carleton’s board of trustees in May, the facilities master plan will guide construction taking place in the next five to 10 years.

College officials said the plan does not call for an expansion of campus in the next several decades — although they’re reserving the right to change their minds. If the campus does grow, Carleton could expand down the residential corridor between campus and the Weitz Center for Creativity — a three-story arts, music and performance space in a three-story building adapted from a former middle school. The college owns all but two houses along that street.

After the college presented its plans, residents expressed a mix of reactions.

“We’re glad to see our house is not on the demolish list,” joked Corrine Heiberg, who with her husband Elvin has lived across the street from campus since 1960.

“We raised three kids who thought the chapel lawn was their front lawn,” said Elvin, a retired dentist. The kids tagged along in Frisbee games, and he and Corrine had a population of “built-in baby sitters” to choose from. “In all these years, the college has been a very good neighbor,” he said.

But living next to a 2,000-student college isn’t without its risks. Not long after moving in, Elvin saw a scale model of Carleton that included its future plans. A potential parking ramp covered the lot where their home stood. Within 15 years, both of the houses next door were converted into office space.

The potential expansion closest to the neighborhood — a 39,000-square-foot addition to the Weitz Center — illustrates the pros and cons of being Carleton’s neighbor. On the one hand, the center will add public concerts to the mix of movies, plays and museum exhibits already open to the public, said Jerri Hurlbutt, president of the Northfield East Side Neighborhood Association and an alumna of the college.

On the other hand, she said, “It will add more parking problems.”

“It will dwarf the [adjoining public] park,” Hurlbutt added. “The construction will be a nightmare for those who live right next door.”

Northfield residents have broader concerns as well, Hurlbutt said. The college has purchased most of the properties in the four blocks between the Weitz Center and campus. That, she said, “is viewed by some as an institutional invasion of the neighborhood.”

Yet others are more sanguine, and the neighborhood has a range of views. “It ranges from real frustration, anger and mistrust to acquiescence to real appreciation and trust, to a mix,” Hurlbutt said.

Same footprint

Most of the construction and renovation, however, will take place on Carleton’s main campus. In all, construction will add less than 5 percent to the college, according to officials.

“The footprint of the college will not change significantly,” said Fernán Jaramillo, associate dean and biology professor.

The school also has no plans to change the number of students enrolled, Jaramillo said, and the new “independent living” housing planned for upperclassmen will reduce the number of students living in Northfield’s residential neighborhoods to 50, a quarter of what it was 15 years ago.

Residents have complained that before the construction of two new dorms in 2009, the college’s increases in enrollment were not matched with new housing. As a result, more students moved into rental houses, angering residents who were used to long-term (and quieter) neighbors.

In the last several years, the “town-gown” relationship has improved, and so has the communication between both parties, said Hurlbutt and Rich Noer, a retired Carleton physics professor.

“My sense from this meeting,” said Noer, “is that the college is sensitive to our concerns” about preserving the residential character of the neighborhood.

Jaramillo said the college has a natural interest in not harming the neighborhood.

“We benefit from each other,” he said, noting that many faculty and staff — himself included — live near campus.

“I have every interest in the neighborhood doing well,” he said. “This is the town where I raise my children.”

Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.

© 2014 Star Tribune