Designing a Crossroads for Campus and Community

by Katie Sloan
A $45 million, 600-bed student housing and retail project opened in fall 2011 at Salisbury University. Several design elements are helping it serve students and locals alike.

Bob Keane, Principal WDG ArchitectureSalisbury, Maryland, known as the “Crossroads of Delmarva,” has long served as a commercial hub within the state’s Eastern Shore region. The city’s history dates to the early 18th century, when its location along the Wicomico River helped established the community as a busy colonial port.

Today, the city has its own new crossroads on the campus of Salisbury University. Sea Gull Square is a lively town square environment that welcomes residents of the local area while accommodating more than 600 upper-class students at the university. The development was conceived as a breakthrough mixed-use project that would increase residential capacity for the university, add a number of “living-learning” spaces and amenities, and create a dynamic link between the campus and the community.

Mixed-Use Appeal
Salisbury University is prominently located along Ocean Boulevard (US Route 13), which bisects the campus and runs north-south through the city. The Sea Gull Square site fronts the highway and was previously home to a bland facilities maintenance building and an aging, university-owned strip shopping center. Recognizing an opportunity to create a gateway development along the southern edge of the campus, while also looking to expand its stock of on-campus student housing, university officials determined that the site would be ideal for much more than a standard residence hall. A concept began to take shape for a mixed-use setting that would invite the community in by creating an engaging destination with a mix of retail and restaurants.

To help achieve its vision, the university launched a national design competition for a public-private Photo by Alan Karchmer.development effort, which led to the selection of Salisbury-based Rinnier Development and Washington, D.C.-based WDG Architecture, working with Baltimore-based Whiting-Turning Contracting Company. The team proposed an “S”-shaped building with two courtyards—one serving as a “town square” fronting South Salisbury Boulevard and the other a more student-oriented environment facing the campus interior and extending the residential quadrangle.

From the beginning, administrators were clear in their desire to create a strong sense of place and help strengthen the town-gown relationship. The university sought a mix of retail and dining establishments that would be convenient for students while also appealing to residents. Administrators also recognized the importance of creating a landscaped setting with meaningful open spaces—a true destination that would draw residents to the campus.

The landscape architecture firm of Parker Rodriguez worked closely with WDG Architecture to design the two courtyards and help define the development’s character and appeal. On the commercial side, Sea Gull Square’s iconic clock tower overlooks a central green with a fountain. This lively area is framed by the retail arcade, with a breezeway extending to the quadrangle on the campus side. On the western side of the building, a generously sized porch with 12-foot Tuscan columns opens onto a spacious patio overlooking this expansive lawn, highlighted by a freestanding pavilion.

The community welcomed the development, which not only promised new retail establishments for the area but new jobs as well. Many of the retail spaces leased quickly and include a Starbucks, a full-service pharmacy, a salon, a women’s clothing store, a sandwich shop and a yogurt shop. In addition to solid community demographics and a student population of 9,200, the development offers retailers advantageous traffic patterns and exclusive retail parking. Students enjoy the on-site retail amenities as well as a fitness center and several multipurpose/academic spaces housed within the residence hall itself.

A Creative Approach to Context

Photo by Alan Karchmer.While administrators recognized that the development’s commercial and student appeal was key to its success, they also focused on the design of the building as a significant addition to the campus. A highly visible building that anchors the southeastern, residential corner of the campus, Sea Gull Square reflects the university’s historic Georgian architecture yet addresses contemporary program needs for retail and active student life. The building has a 15-foot post-tensioned concrete podium as a base, which allows for high ceilings in the retail and lobby spaces. Cost-effective wood frame construction was used on the second through fifth floors, with the savings directed to exterior detailing. The building has a red-brick façade with classic white trim, bay windows, and high-quality, slate-colored metal standing-seam roofs at varying heights, creating a distinctive presence along Ocean Boulevard while respecting the existing architectural fabric of the campus.

While the retail spaces were an important component of the project, the development of contemporary student residences and support spaces was also a key focus—including security. The campus security and IT teams were involved early on in the design process to ensure the integration of comprehensive student security measures addressing access to the building, as well as lighting, landscaping, surveillance, and other details.

For developer Blair Rinnier of Rinnier Development Company, Sea Gull Square has been “a very special concept from the beginning.” He notes that the public-private partnership enabled the development and design team to “share ideas and collaborate with the university…We talk a lot about the relationship between the university and the community and the need for both sides to reach out, and this building accomplishes that. It’s a unique project.”

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