Integrating a School into a Transit-Oriented Development

Including a K-12 school into a transit-oriented development invents a new type of learning environment enriched by connecting students to an expanded community.

The idea started with a conversation about the future of schools. As learning environments evolve, budgets shift and educators move away from traditional models, schools will be increasingly looking for ways to integrate with the community, designers agreed.

“Co-location of educational environments — that’s really where the future is going,” said LPA Associate Principal Kate Mraw, recalling those early talks.

Designers in LPA’s San Jose office quickly moved the discussion toward transit-oriented development (TOD), a hot topic in the Bay Area and emerging communities around the country. Transportation and housing costs are daily issues for both neighborhoods and educators. Teachers can’t afford to live in their school districts. School commutes clog roads and steal time from parents.

“When we talked about it, it was a natural fit,” said San Jose-based Associate Helen Pierce. “For me, it congealed into this idea of a transit-oriented K-12 school that spoke to all these issues.”

The discussion was inspired by a specific site. Planners in San Jose are looking at how to best transform Diridon Station, a major transportation hub which will soon be a key stop for the nation’s first high-speed train. A planned Google development could bring a transit-rich, amenity-rich, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use destination, replacing the existing industrial, retail and vacant land around the station.

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Why not a school, as well? Integrating an innovative educational environment into a TOD addresses a myriad of concerns, from construction costs to the living expenses of teachers, while creating an important amenity for developers. “There is a strong opportunity for partnerships,” said LPA Associate Principal Keith Hempel, who works with developer and corporate clients.

A few weeks ago, LPA designers gathered in San Jose for an open charrette to discuss how a TOD-based school might look and function. The group included architects, an engineer, a landscape architect and members of LPA’s urban design projects team, providing a wide range of expertise and viewpoints on the different aspects of the concept.

Soon the conversation moved to the ways in which a TOD school could support new approaches to education, creating a campus focused on place-based learning. More than simply transportation, the transit-focused development would extend boundaries for students, connecting them to an enlarged and expanded community.

A transit-oriented site could take the idea of the community as a classroom and make it a reality, leveraging the power of place. An idea was born: “Concentric Experiential Learning,” focused on the idea of getting students out of classrooms and into the community, where they can learn in different environments and then apply that knowledge to their learning. Exposing students to their surroundings aids in the discovery of finding their place of impact in the world, giving them an opportunity to bring purpose to their learning experience.

LPA designers have worked with co-located schools in the past. The e3 Civic High school in San Diego, designed by LPA, is located on the sixth and seventh floors of the city’s modern new library complex, the first school in the U.S. to be integrated into a public library. LPA also designed TIDE Academy, a STEM-focused school embedded in a light-industrial area of Menlo Park.

The key is to seamlessly integrate the school with community functions, the designers agreed. The school should leverage the advantages of a TOD, which are typically compact, dense and vertical. And they should build on that sense of community. “We’re building a resource hub,” said Patrick McClintock, Associate Principal in LPA’s San Jose office. “It’s a place that can change how parents make decisions about where they want to live and work.”

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The end result of the months of discussion and sketching is a design that integrates a STEM-focused school into the core of the development. Students will be able to walk off trains and directly into the secure school environment. The ground floor is a combination of co-work spaces and learning environments, a place where parents can work in the same areas as their children’s schools. “It brings back this sense of a neighborhood, this community where parents can stay connected with their children,” Mraw said.

The design breaks down the model of a traditional school, where students stay on campus all day. Curriculums can leverage the access to transportation to move learning off site, engaging and developing students in different ways. Instead of traditional classrooms, there are more community-based spaces, labs and inter-disciplinary environments. “There are a lot of spaces we rethought with this design,” Mraw said. “The model changes.”

Spaces in the design are flexible and encourage interactions between the community, students and businesses, in ways that may not be foreseen today. Small team areas and “Empathy Labs” will create environments for small group learning and more personal development. A tall, two-story open space was included, dubbed the “Student U.N.,” to host different types of community and student events. On the top floor, there are “makerspaces on steroids,” where students can research and create projects in labs designed for hands-on learning and simulation.

The overall design supports a more flowing, flexible nature of learning that recognizes the advantages of the location. Cost-efficiencies are achieved by cutting the need for parking and combining resources, as well as using space more effectively. And the TOD site expands the reach of where school administrators, teachers and students can live in relation to the school.

In a time when communities struggle to provide adequate civic and community institutions “It helps solve problems in a very practical way,” Pierce said.In many ways, the design is an ode to the days when students of all ages from around the neighborhood gathered under one roof, in a facility that was also the central gathering point for the community.

“It’s the urban version of the little red schoolhouse for the modern world,” Mraw said.

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 1 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.