How will SNF Agora reach Baltimore community?

By CHRIS PARK | October 3, 2019

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Two weeks ago, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Agora Institute unveiled plans for the construction of a building to house the Institute. The planned construction start date is fall 2020, with estimated completion by summer 2022. 

The SNF Agora Institute, which was established with a $150 million gift last year that included funding for a new building, is intended to serve as an academic and public forum to promote civic engagement. The building will be constructed on Wyman Park Drive, where a parking lot is currently located. 

The SNF Agora Institute has instated a Student Advisory Board in order to encourage student involvement in the establishment of the building. The Board held its first meeting this Tuesday. Students are skeptical about the building’s ability to be an inclusive environment, although Kendall Free, a member of the Board, expressed hope that the SNF Agora Institute may be able to successfully involve students in its planning and execution. 

“It’s all about the implementation,” Free said. “It’s going to take a lot of work from the Agora to change that narrative and put in the work to make it inclusive.” 

Free also expressed concern about the parking spaces where the building will be constructed.

Renzo Piano Building Workshop designed the building in partnership with the Baltimore-based architecture firm, Ayers Saint Gross.

SNF is an international philanthropic organization involved with various areas including the arts, education and medicine. The University intends for the Institute to serve as a forum for an interdisciplinary, inclusive dialogue about democracy. 

Dennis Gong, a Student Advisory Board member outlined the current process involved in the building’s development.

“We are currently in the process of focus group meetings with the architects to determine what would make the space most usable for students,” he said.

Gong also expressed his desire for the SNF Agora Institute building to serve as a replacement for Brody while also offering students a place to learn more about SNF Agora Institute’s mission and purpose. 

SNF Agora Institute Executive Director Elizabeth Smyth stated her concerns about reaching a wide population of the student body and noted that they formed the Student Advisory Board last spring to alleviate such concerns. She expressed optimism about a broad interest in the Institute, noting that the applicants for the Board were from a diverse array of majors and backgrounds.

Smyth added that SNF Agora is implementing initiatives to engage students with speakers coming to campus. 

“We had a speaker last week, Molly Crockett, who came to campus. Before she spoke we had dinner with students to engage with the speaker. In another couple of weeks, we have two speakers coming in where we are going to have a dinner for students and speakers,” Smyth said. 

Design concerns

The design of the building has received several criticisms since its designs were released. Baltimore officials and community members have expressed concerns about the glass-cube design distancing SNF Agora Institute from the rest of the Homewood Campus and Baltimore City. 

The Baltimore Sun reported on a Baltimore Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP) meeting about the building on Sept. 19. Osbourne Anthony, a member of the panel, stated his concern about the structure of SNF Agora. 

“The public and the community can see this as... democracy at a distance,“ Anthony said. 

The News-Letter spoke with various students and other Hopkins affiliates about the newly released plan and their response to it.

Sylvana Schaffer, co-president of the Hopkins Democrats, expressed similar concerns to the UDAAP meeting, concurring that Hopkins has a repeated pattern of establishing an uninviting presence to the rest of the city. 

“If you look at Hopkins and its relationship to the city, definitely there are a lot of reasons to be concerned,” Schaffer said. 

Senior Devanshu Singh, a member of IDEAL, said he was worried about how the Institute can be perceived by the Baltimore community.

“The Agora Institute is a little bit elitist because it’s from Hopkins,” he said. “If [the building] is a fancy, large building that raises housing prices around the area and isn’t open... I could see it making Hopkins definitely more separated.”

Elly Ren, a co-president of Refuel Our Future, pointed to pictures of the building plan on the SNF Agora Institute’s social media accounts. These pictures also featured President Ronald J. Daniels, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Dean Beverly Wendland, and architect Renzo Piano.

Ren criticized the pictures as emblematic of the way the administration chooses to make decisions without consulting student input. 

“The picture reminds me of [a] smoke-filled room and how many things are operated at Hopkins, where a very powerful few are the ones making most of the decisions, such as how our endowment is being invested [and] the creation of a private police,” Ren said. “I fear that the student engagement sessions are just a way that the University can maintain its facade of seeming to take in student input while not truly hearing them out.”

Smyth responded to these concerns and stressed the importance of the Institute’s partnership with the city. 

“We have worked closely with our community neighborhood associations throughout the design process, updating them as plans progress for the building,” she said. “SNF Agora’s success depends on our continued engagement with stakeholders outside of the university, very much including the people of Baltimore.”

Smyth stated that the comments from The Sun were taken out of context. She noted that she was not present at the UDAAP meeting but had read the transcript, and members of her team had attended.

“The question that came up was more of a caution to the University as the conversation moved from building, where there were a lot of positive feedback of the design, to a conversation about the landscape design, which we haven’t designed yet,” she said. 

Smyth also said that the building’s designs were in its initial steps of development and that SNF Agora will be addressing the comments at the next UDAAP hearing.

“It’s a pretty unique opportunity to have an architect like Renzo Piano to be designing a building for our campus and, frankly, for our city,” Smyth added. “It says a lot about our investment in the city; it says a lot about him and his recognition of the importance of what this Institute is trying to do.”

When asked for clarification on concerns raised in the UDAAP hearing, Baltimore Planning Supervisor and UDAAP Coordinator Anthony Cataldo explained that the hearing had been a good opportunity to review the initial designs of the project and discuss potential improvements in an email to The News-Letter. 

He specifically commented on methods to improve the front space of the Wyman Park Medical Center and its connection to SNF Agora. 

“This will emphasize pedestrian connections and quality outdoor space,” Cataldo wrote. “We feel confident that the team will take that conversation and begin to find ways to design solutions that will mitigate any perception of this and look forward to the team return to UDAAP with a discussion of those studies.”

Sustainability 

Ren expressed several concerns about the construction. She expressed hopes that the designers and University administrators would prioritize accessibility.

Ren also had environmental concerns about the construction. The Hub article on the building reported that the building would meet LEED Silver Certification criteria while the landscaping would provide habitat for wildlife. 

Ren, however, criticized this as an example of “greenwashing,” explaining that the University frequently tries to make their initiatives appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. 

She gave examples of ways the University could actually increase their environmental engagement.

“It would be amazing to see the University honor the indigenous Piscataway land that they are on through holding land acknowledgments at big events and having a plaque at the Institute and the new student center, which a few universities do already,” Ren said. 

Location

Among students, concerns also surrounded the location of the building being too far from the center of Homewood for SNF Agora to play a prominent role in campus life. Similar worries were raised earlier this year about the relocation of campus administration from Garland to the Wyman Park Building.

“It’s definitely not ideal,” Schaffer said. 

However, Schaffer conceded that students who are particularly invested would likely make the trip, and that there might not be better options on campus.

“People already go there to go for Econ office hours,” Schaffer said. “I just don’t know if there is a place on campus to stick it in the middle of it.”

Smyth defended the location, noting that its position near Wyman Park makes it closer to other parts of the community than just the center of campus.

She stated that both the campus community and the neighborhood surrounding it are crucial engagement targets for SNF Agora.

Potential for growth

Smyth stated her belief that SNF Agora was in a good position to maneuver the concerns raised by students and community members. 

“First and foremost the programming and activities, both curricular and extracurricular, will be so compelling so that you will have no choice but to want to be part of it,” she said. “And that’s a big part of it. Second of all, we are going to have a wonderful café on the opening floor that will be open to students, faculty and the broader community.”

Students also expressed excitement about the construction of the new building and the role SNF Agora will play at Hopkins.

Schaffer believes that SNF Agora could diversify speaker offerings.

“It’s a great idea,” Schaffer said. “You always see a lot of speakers that are pertaining to the STEM field. There’s nothing wrong with that, but [SNF] Agora is good because it brings in high-profile people who are involved in civic engagement and politics. It’s always good to have more of that.”

International Studies Leadership Council (ISLC) Vice President Carmela Irato echoed Schaffer’s enthusiasm and stated that she thinks the building will revolutionize the curriculum of her discipline. 

“The building is such a smart idea,“ Irato said. “When we look at the vision of the building, it is like a community center somewhere. It’s where everyone can come together to learn about a topic, and we don’t really have that right now. Everyone can gravitate towards there, and it can be a really enriching experience.”

Singh provided specific examples of ways that SNF Agora could initiate and improve conversations. 

“Especially in Baltimore, we could have nonprofits come in and talk about... alleviating problems like housing or homelessness,” he said.

Smyth also shared her enthusiasm for potential student engagement with SNF Agora through various student groups.

“We hope to work closely with student groups and ultimately become the home base [for] many of those groups,” she said. “This Institute could’ve been put anywhere in the world, and it’s at Hopkins, and it’s addressing one of the biggest questions we’re facing right now, across the globe. That’s really exciting, and I hope our students will feel that same excitement.”

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