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  • Professor Peter Cannavò

Is the proposed Campus Master Plan right for Hamilton?

A Sasaki representative speaks to feedback session attendees on Friday, February 9th. | Gabriel Bit-Babik '25 for Monitor

In 1910, architect Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood … Make big plans.” Yet social critic Jane Jacobs, whose Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) revolutionized urban planning, decried big plans. She said they were anti-democratic and imposed sweeping, uniform solutions that ignored the complexity and character of particular places.

Though they can enable a more holistic, long-term perspective, big plans can sacrifice important aspects of a place to the maximization of a few qualities or variables. In so doing, they can also burden particular communities. The Campus Master Plan for Hamilton College developed by the architectural and planning firm Sasaki unfortunately displays some of the pitfalls of big plans.

To their credit, Sasaki has based its plan on a comprehensive study of campus life. They have conducted surveys and held forums and open houses. They have responded to community concerns. For example, they abandoned a proposal to fold all cultural and identity-based organizations into a large, consolidated student activities hub. Students from these organizations rightly objected that this would deprive them of safe spaces free of unwelcome scrutiny. Sasaki has instead proposed an Affinity Group Village to house cultural and identity, as well as religious and spiritual, organizations. The Master Plan, which emphasizes efficiency and convenience, would also create a more navigable and consolidated campus, making it easier for students, who often traverse long distances.

However, Sasaki’s approach does not sufficiently respect Hamilton’s distinctive character.  They envision the intersection of College Hill Road and Martins Way as a high-density campus core. Sasaki proposes consolidating residential, dining, and auxiliary learning functions here.  This entails transforming Soper Commons into a Learning Commons, plus constructing a 450-seat dining hall, a 138-bed residence hall, and, further down the hill, a five- or six-story, 200-bed student apartment building. Such consolidation has a significant cost. It means the demolition of the Days-Massolo Center, the Afro-Latinx Cultural Center, and 202 College Hill Road. All three are former residences. Azel Backus House, built in 1802 and the home of Hamilton Hillel, also disappears from its current location. An earlier Sasaki presentation designates it for renovation. Presumably, it will be moved.  

College Hill Road is the main gateway to campus, and the old, modest-scaled structures present a human-scaled, open, rural quality.  By contrast, the Master Plan would crowd College Hill Road with imposing structures.  Though Sasaki does not specify aesthetic design, their renderings are nonetheless revealing of what the college might build.  The dining and residential centers have a sterile, corporate character that makes Hamilton look like any other node in a globalized institutional network.

In terms of what will be demolished, the Days-Massolo Center and the Afro-Latinx Cultural Center are cherished sites with enormous historical significance for Hamilton’s traditionally marginalized communities. The basement of the ALCC, with years of inscriptions on the walls, has become a historical document for generations of student life and activism among people of color asserting their place at Hamilton. A 2019 Spectator article quotes Luis Morales ’19: “This is a space that holds power and one in which Black and Latinx students have left a legacy.” The article also discusses the DMC, which Sacharja Cunningham ’19 describes as a “space of rest and commitment.” Indeed, the cozy residential structure, with its kitchen, living room, and study locations, provides both a safe space and a human-scaled, welcoming environment for students of color, queer students, and cultural, identity, and activist organizations. These buildings represent key aspects of Hamilton’s character and history over the past half-century. And relocation of cultural, identity, and activist activities and organizations housed in these buildings, along with relocation of Hillel from Backus House, into an all-purpose Affinity Group Village would sacrifice the elements of safety, intimacy, rest, and empowerment that come with smaller, more self-contained structures.  

In its laudable effort to promote efficiency, accessibility, convenience, and community, Sasaki’s plan thus disregards other key elements of Hamilton’s character, undermining what is distinctive and historic about this campus, and burdens marginalized communities with relocation from cherished places.

Though the planning process has involved democratic input, this has not been nearly enough. As of June 20 last year, Sasaki’s survey of faculty, students, and staff had received only 300 responses, a really dismal turnout. Public events hosted by Sasaki were sparsely attended.  As Sasaki is still seeking input on the Master Plan, the administration should hold a campus-wide town hall, encompassing both students and employees, to discuss the plan.  Indeed, the onus is on the administration, not Sasaki, to open up the process.

The Master Plan represents a major juncture for Hamilton. It will unfold over decades and reshape the campus. Students, faculty, and staff must have their voices heard so we get it right for those who come after.

Professor Peter Cannavò speaks during the feedback portion of the Campus Master Plan presentation. | Gabriel Bit-Babik '25 for Monitor

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