Interview with Campus Planner Robert Clossin ’95

What does being the director of campus planning entail, exactly?  

I would say I have to know a lot about everything. That’s more or less the planner’s role—not to be an expert, but a generalist, so that we understand the steps and the process and understand how they all fit together. A lot of our challenges, even at the early stages, is working with project managers, creating a schedule, and making sure that their goal is to deliver the project on schedule and on a budget. So we need to make sure that this or that happens, and a lot of things are dictated from the state, or regulations. We need to make sure it all happens, and there’s a lot of pitfalls along the way that we need to be careful about. We also realize it’s very critical that we engage with the community, because we impact the community. So we try to be as proactive as possible. It’s about being transparent; it’s about being a good neighbor.

What about the fun stuff?

What’s exciting about this role is it’s very dynamic. Every project that we do on this campus is very different. All the players, for instance: if it’s an academic department–every academic department is different. The driver behind any project could be very different, so you have to take a different approach with each one. I don’t think a lot of people realize how our projects are all very different. For instance, we’re planning for a fire station; we’re planning for a lot of housing on campus. The North Torrey Pines project obviously is very dynamic, being mixed-use. It’s the biggest project we’ve done on campus.

It’s all very exciting because you get to work with architects, you work with engineers. We have to get out and communicate the message to people, and most people are receptive. We just want them to know what’s going on, this is the project and this is why it’s good.

How does your experience as a student, and now as an alum, inform what you do?

When I came here, I wanted to get into architecture. At the time that I transferred in here–I was a transfer student–there was an architecture program. The architecture program was just starting at the time, but ended up getting cut–budgets and other things. And I thought: I want to be here, I know that. I’m sure a lot of students have that same experience in making that big decision: Well, what do I want to do? So I got into the urban studies and planning department. That’s pretty consistent–it aligns with architecture and design, regional planning–so it was a good decision. The education was just above and beyond what I would expect–very broad and theoretical, but it’s a broad perspective that you have to have as a planner. You have to have it.

The other experience, I would say, is I didn’t live on campus. I was a commuter. And at that point, there was no campus life. It was very different. I look back and reflect on that and I think of the student experience today and think, “Wow.” You have to get out at night on the campus to really feel what’s going on here. Working here day-to-day you get used to the general bustle, but at night time, there’s so much happening now compared to when I attended classes. It’s amazing. I didn’t get that experience, but I  understand more about how we’re building the campus—how we want this living and learning environment. That’s really important, because the commuter thing works for some, but really the foundation is if you can be on campus it’s a great experience. So we have focus groups with students and make sure we hear what they want.

What do the students say?

They would like to see more of the San Diego experience here on campus. For instance, if you said you went to UC San Diego, did you experience San Diego, or are you just experiencing a UC campus? They said, “We’d like to see more of San Diego brought into UC San Diego.” We don’t really have that kind of experience here—not yet. You don’t have it in the Price Center. If you look at it that way, we have a 1980’s mall experience. So one thing we are looking at is the university center and redeveloping that so that we create more of a Main street, a downtown where you can have restaurants that spill out onto a street, something that could be right off the Light Rail. So the pieces are starting to form there, and students were like, “Really, you guys are doing that? That would be awesome!”

Kinf of like making it a new neighborhood or district. Something that has its own feel, like so many others in San Diego.

That’s the whole idea of the university center. The idea was to build it as a downtown, but it’s not there yet. So now’s the opportunity, and the Chancellor is definitely behind how we can create a more vibrant campus, and bringing all the students into a place that they can have a unified, shared ground.

Is there a unique kind of pride in being an alum and now building the future of campus? How does it feel?

If I look back to when I was in school here, I didn’t even think about planning on the campus. It wasn’t something that even crossed my mind. You’re reading books about city planning in Paris or European cities and you don’t think about, well, what about universities? How do universities fit into that? The thing about universities is we’re here forever, so you’re planning beyond—things that last a long time. You definitely have a lasting effect. And when we step back and say, look at what’s being built here, look what we’re planning for here, its pretty amazing.