The Big Man On Campus has plans

New Florida Atlantic University President John Kelly talks like a city planner. For Boca Raton, that’s a good thing.

FAU’s main campus isn’t just 850 acres that dispense education, culture, recreation and entertainment. It’s also a key component of the city. What FAU does affects more than just the campus. Example: the decision to change the swath of land on Glades Road known as University Commons from married student housing to outside retail. Traffic to University Commons—Whole Foods, Barnes and Noble, Bed, Bath and Beyond and all the restaurants—has made Glades Road and 15th Avenue the most congested intersection in Palm Beach County.

At the time, that switch—which brings lease income to FAU—came as an unpleasant surprise to Boca Raton. Since then, however, FAU has made more of an effort to work with the city on proposed big projects. The current big thing, if it works out, could bring big benefits for both FAU and Boca.

That would be creation of a college-oriented neighborhood around 20th Street just east of the campus. During an interview Wednesday in his office, Kelly said he wants to create the sort of “college town” district that FAU lacks. It would be a place to get “student food” and find entertainment within walking distance, which Kelly considers roughly one-fourth of a mile from campus. “I found out quickly,” he says, “that if you want to get food around here without waiting long, you’d better get it before you leave campus.”

Such a district also would include apartments to complement the on-campus dorms. FAU, though, would not finance this housing. “I would rather spend our money on academics and athletics,” Kelly says. Private companies would finance the apartments, for which you would assume there would be a substantial market. Apartments north of the 20th Street area already cater to students.

Looking at a map of the campus, Kelly points to the three southern entrances on Glades Road, saying none of them offers a “real” entrance. Doing 20th Street right, he said, might provide that defining gateway, especially since 20th Street leads into the administration building.

There’s also the question of FAU’s northern entrance once the state finishes building the Spanish River Boulevard interchange at Interstate 95. The interchange will take some of the pressure off Glades and 15th Avenue, where FAU commuter traffic backs up on I-95 at the Glades Road interchange on weekday mornings. But more traffic coming in from the north will mean a new look at FAU and the neighborhoods north of the campus.

Kelly has “met with several developers,” and has asked Dennis Crudele, FAU’s vice president for finance, to “get to a decision on 20th Street.” Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie correctly has pointed out that the area has no particular identity within the city, and thus could be an ideal spot for a planned new district.

Redoing FAU’s physical plan fits with Kelly’s review of the university’s academic priority—to improve the graduation rate. Only about 40 percent of FAU students earn a degree in six years. That rate is near the bottom among Florida’s 11 public universities, and the Legislature soon may allocate state money based on performance.

Kelly said getting freshmen on campus, as opposed to living at home, increases the chance of graduation because the students are more involved. That can be tough at FAU and other universities in Florida that began as commuter schools, as opposed to the University of Florida and Florida State. Also, students who live within 30 miles of the Boca campus don’t have to live there, because those students may come from families that can’t afford housing and food costs as well as tuition and fees.

Still, Kelly’s goal of getting more residential and non-residential students to “hang out on campus” is rightly designed to keep all students focused more on leaving the campus—with a degree. Even if FAU doesn’t own off-campus apartments, Kelly wants to “embed FAU” within the apartments, offering students access to career counseling and other services. Eventually, FAU might reserve on-campus dorms for younger residential students, who then would go off-campus but not out of FAU’s reach. Buses, for example, would reduce traffic on campus.

You can see why FAU’s search committee gushed over Kelly before the trustees approved his selection in January. Kelly, who had been vice president for economic development at Clemson, is an academic with real-world sensibilities. By this fall, he expects to have a plan for improving the graduation rate, and will seek guidance from business and community leaders. Notably, he also wants to improve FAU’s presence at the Jupiter campus. Pointing out that “Harvard would love” a campus that included biotech giants Scripps and the Max Planck Florida Institute, Kelly said, “We don’t want to look back in 10 years and say, ‘Too bad we didn’t do more there.’" He must name three permanent vice presidents among his leadership team, and plans to do so “by the end of fall.”

Any talk of FAU, of course, must include the controversy that brought down former President Mary Jane Saunders. She embarrassed FAU in early 2013 with her inept defense of the $6 million stadium naming rights deal with private prison company GEO—a deal the board never should have approved. GEO withdrew the donation after revelations of human rights abuses at some of its facilities.

Sadly, there is no progress on a new stadium deal. But there is new management. If Kelly can accomplish at FAU what he did at Clemson, Boca Raton will benefit along with the students, and all that gushing will have been justified.

We’re Number One!

This week, Delray Beach touted its ranking by a financial website as the seventh-best Florida city in which to live. What Delray didn’t say is that the same so-called study ranked Boca Raton first.

The comparison comes from CreditDonkey (creditdonkey.com), which claims to rate financial products and based its ranking on five categories: income, percentage of residents who attended college, odds of being a victim of violent crime, commute time and number of restaurants per capita. For the record, CreditDonkey’s 10 best in Florida are: Boca, Coral Springs, Pensacola, Port Orange, Jupiter, Davie, Delray, Clearwater, Cape Coral and Jacksonville. Here’s the link to the full comments. Study: Best Cities to Live in Florida - CreditDonkey

In fact, a better name for the list would be “Best Cities to Live in Florida After Making Your Money Somewhere Else.” A year ago, CreditDonkey released its list of the 10 best cities in which to get rich. No Florida cities got that designation. That Top 10 was: San Jose, Boston, Washington, D.C.—think about that one for a minute—Austin, Tex., Minneapolis, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Raleigh, N.C., and Houston.

Campaign spinning begins

Prepare for this news to be spun in the campaign for governor: Florida led the nation in job growth for June, adding 37,400 non-farm jobs after a drop of 17,200 in May.

If you like Gov. Rick Scott, he gets the credit. If you like Charlie Crist, Florida is just riding the wave of national improvement under President Obama. In fact, the national unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is now lower than Florida’s 6.2 percent, after Scott for months had touted Florida’s lower rate.

Part of the reason Florida’s unemployment rate has stalled for now is actually good news: More people are joining the labor force. Nearly 207,000 have done so in the last six months, which means that people are more optimistic about finding work.

Do not expect to see this sort of layered discussion in Scott and Crist campaign ads. But now you know.     

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.