Perspectives

SMU’s Manifest Destiny: Endless Expansion, Eminent Domain

Good news: SMU has broken ground on a new, state-of-the-art aquatics center. Bad news: It’s going to be built across Central Expressway from the main SMU campus, in the burgeoning yet remote-feeling East Campus. Good news: SMU has a high-rise tower at its disposal for office, classroom, and administrative space. Bad news: It, too, is located across Central Expressway. More good news: SMU is nestled amongst the stately homes and tree-lined drives of upscale University Park, and it’s proven to be a great fit for the university. But some bad news: Room for campus expansion in this centrally located neighborhood in the heart of Dallas is practically nonexistent. 

With the highway no longer being the demarcated boundary of where the school ends and where the city of Dallas begins, one must rethink their idea of what constitutes the “SMU bubble,” in the process confronting SMU’s Manifest Destiny: east, east, east.

I can certainly understand why East Campus might seem a viable plan for land-strapped SMU. It finds itself somewhere between an upscale, high-density mixed use area and a sea of offices, parking garages, and empty lots with an industrial vibe, ripe for redevelopment. Yet, it feels disconnected from the main campus west of the highway, with its strictly Georgian architecture, mid-rise buildings, and grassy green space aplenty. For students and faculty looking to utilize East Campus’ amenities, such as the Psychology department or perhaps the Payroll office, a special trip across Central Expressway is required. While to some it might be a mere inconvenience to cross the highway, to me it indicates entrance into a new physical and mental space: with the highway no longer being the demarcated boundary of where the school ends and where the city of Dallas begins, one must rethink their idea of what constitutes the “SMU bubble,” in the process confronting SMU’s Manifest Destiny: east, east, east. Where will SMU draw its line in pushing growth eastward? How integrated will East Campus become with its mixed use SMU Boulevard neighbors, and will this signal a fundamental shift in how students and faculty interact with campus? How walkable is it, and how will SMU encourage students to consider it “part of campus?” There remain many unanswered questions.

A related inquiry, it stands to reason, is what a growing private university with over a $1 billion endowment can do with such restrained land resources. Is the solution to campus expansion to push the bounds across highway 75? What of expanding on this side of the highway? The only way that SMU could finagle growth on the primary campus would be to tear down and rebuild (such as in the case of the new Bob Smith Health Center), to engage in parking lot removal (Harold Simmons Hall), or to buy up and then demolish parts of the surrounding neighborhood, which SMU can only do if it acquires the land.

This eminent domain-based practice was what SMU engaged in throughout the years leading up to the construction of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, which opened in early 2013. In order to be competitive in the presidential library bidding process, SMU needed to show private donors, investors, and other stakeholders that they would be able to provide sufficient acreage to host the library and its associated institute. Less than 5 years later, SMU would again purchase residential land on the northwest corner of Mockingbird Lane and Central Expressway in order to construct five residential commons, Arnold Dining Commons, and the Mustang Band Hall.

I think that SMU should be taking a harder look at the implications of expansion, both across the highway and acquisition through eminent domain.

On both of these occasions, SMU met with resistance from some residents who felt that the eminent domain process wasn’t fair. Some went as far as filing a civil suit in the Bush Library case, yet SMU claimed throughout that their land acquisitions were legal and unrelated to library construction. I feel that there are residential blocks still at risk in University Park, especially those that butt up against the commuter lot east of Airline. Is it morally acceptable for SMU to engage in these practices? Should we be continuing to scope out land that we consider ours for the taking by virtue of our legal and financial resources? For me, it reeks of presumptuous entitlement – that we feel we have the right to continue to engulf those without the power to stand up against a university.

I understand SMU’s fiscal concerns. I certainly understand the pressure that donors and investors can put on administrations to produce tangible results that are representative of their support (and not just a brick paver). I understand that SMU’s administration might feel that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, on one hand valuing the city of Dallas for its connection to and support of SMU, and on the other, being physically confined by it. At the same time, I think that SMU should be taking a harder look at the implications of expansion, both across the highway and acquisition through eminent domain. There should be greater opportunities for our surrounding communities to make their interests known, and SMU should consider other, perhaps more innovative or out-of-the-box plans for developing and redeveloping their land and infrastructure. A more balanced approach to SMU’s expansion and development is direly needed and long overdue.


This article was written by Kayla Finstein. Click here to see more of Kayla’s work.

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