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City of Orange faces 'town and gown' school test

There is an old dilemma about college life in cities, and it's never truly been solved.

How do we educate students in urban environments while maintaining the quality of life for existing residents?

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Called "town and gown," it's as old as academia itself, but it's not just a meaningless metaphor. It's a very real reality facing the residents of Orange as they consider an expansion proposal by Chapman University.

Under the plan, enrollment could increase to 11,650, up from 8,700.

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What complicates the issue is an adjacent historical district that will have to try and accommodate the growth and market impacts while preserving its roots. There are also the ongoing residential complaints about noise, traffic and parking.

The debate has already begun in council meetings, neighborhood workshops and other planning sessions that will continue throughout the year with an expected decision by the City Council sometime early next year.

In the meantime, no one seems particularly happy.

Nearly every council meeting now starts with vivid, lengthy public testimony about student parties, general mayhem and bad behavior.

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For its part, Chapman is trying to support the process, reaching out to city officials and other constituent groups. On paper, everyone claims to be reasonable people trying to come up with reasonable solutions.

"We're always working to mitigate problems," said Chapman spokeswoman Mary Platt. "Every university in every town deals with issues, even going back to the Middle Ages. That's when the town-versus-gown dichotomy began. In these great medieval towns in Germany or France, all of sudden you had this great university in the town and all these young people, and so there was always a division between town and gown."

Perhaps no one understands history more than the Old Towne Preservation Assn. (OTPA), which has gone on record as opposing the expansion. The 1-square-mile Old Towne historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the largest district in the state.

While the group wants to stay civil during the dialogue, OTPA President Sandy Quinn said they are definitely concerned.

"We have great respect for Chapman University and are hopeful that concerns expressed by the community over the school's growth plans can be resolved," he said. "We filed a four-page letter outlining the Old Towne Preservation Assn.'s views in detail."

In that letter, they cite "additional traffic, lack of parking, overdevelopment, noise, litter, impacts to infrastructure," and other impacts.

"The aggressive expansion proposed will further deteriorate the fabric and integrity of our historic district," the group wrote.

City spokesman Paul Sitkoff said Orange will continue to address the proposed impacts through the public process, recognizing that it's a sensitive issue.

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However, there are limits to what falls within the city's jurisdiction. For example, any changes to the retail mix within Old Towne is largely up to the property owners, as long as they adhere to the proper regulations.

"The thing to remember is that Old Towne is not a shopping mall," Sitkoff said. "It's an actual living, breathing downtown city area. And the business mix is decided by the property owners. We do not get involved in the tenant-merchant relationship. The mix is decided by the market."

It's obvious, however, that an increase in students will impact the historic district and nearby areas. It's where the students eat, drink and live.

And the retail shops already reflect it. While historically dominated by antiques stores, as those close they are replaced by pizza restaurants and coffeehouses.

Chapman's Platt, who lives in the historic district, knows there are challenges but points to the benefits as well.

"With students especially, this is the first time they're out in the world, and we realize that there are going to be issues with parties, traffic and noise," she said. "What I'd love for the neighbors to understand is we want to be a good neighbor. No university wants to be an ivory tower. We want to welcome our neighbors and people around us into our sports events, our concerts, our film showings. If people would take advantage of it, it's a treasure chest of opportunities."

The residents of Orange have decisions to make. This expansion proposal is very much a watershed moment for most people, and nearly every neighbor, interest group and business owner will weigh in.

"Not everybody is right, and not everybody is wrong," Platt said. "It's something we all have to work together on. Universities are here for a long time."

That is true, and so are historic districts.

And in the meantime, the city will set aside its concerns on Labor Day weekend and host its annual food festival. Claiming more than 500,00 visitors, it will showcase the breadth and diversity of Orange through food and festivities.

What remains to be seen is how much patience and goodwill the city will have once all the tourists leave, and it's back to school.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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