Student center vision debuted

By Ariana Portalatin, Campus Editor

An official look at Columbia’s $50 million student center was released May 2, showing the designs for the five-story, 114,000-square-foot building that was created based on student feedback.

The preliminary renderings detail the college’s vision for a central hub for the college community, including spaces that will allow for flexibility in events and activities. Chicago-based architecture firm Gensler won the bid for designing the building following the college’s programming phase that began in 2015.

According to President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim, the compiled student feedback was given to Gensler to incorporate into its official design. The building will include a dining area, a fitness center, meeting and study rooms and a career service center, among other amenities.

“It’s really thrilling,” Kim said. “Here’s the fundamental thing that’s so exciting about the student center: The process [of] getting to the renderings was very organic.”

The center is still on schedule to be completed in late 2018. While the funding sources have not been finalized yet, Kim—who has often said the $50 million will not come from tuition—added that the “core” of the funds will be from the sale of the University Center, 525 S. State St., and from putting other buildings on the market, including the 1415 S. Wabash Ave. Building. 

As reported Sept. 10, 2016, by The Chronicle, Columbia—along with Depaul and Roosevelt universities—put the UC up for sale, and it is valued at more than the $150 million it took to construct the building, with $127 million in bonds financing the property. Besides students from those three schools, students from Robert Morris University also reside in the UC.

“We’ve been looking at a lot of our assets, buildings that aren’t being utilized fully,” Kim said. “The trustees see this as a way to repurpose assets.”

Columbia’s collaboration with Gensler is not its first. According to its website, the firm has worked on more than 125 Columbia projects, including current renovations to the Getz Theatre, 72 E. 11th St.

According to Brian Vitale, principle and design director for Gensler, the company recently finished designing and constructing a business school center for the University of Kansas, which combined both faculty and student populations  in one building for intersection between the two groups.

Though the architecture firm from the programming phase, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, also bid for the center design, Kim said Gensler was most in-tune with Columbia’s needs.

“Gensler made the most compelling argument,” Kim said. “They seemed like they were the most in touch with what we were thinking. We examined each of the company’s experience in building similar buildings, and just decided that Gensler seemed like the best fit.”

Vitale said the company understood Columbia’s need for a student center so students can gather and collaborate with each other.

“All [of Columbia’s] departments are in individual buildings, and to create innovative environments and to be innovative, you need to start remixing things in many ways,” Vitale said. “The thought was, ‘How do we get people from those really diverse departments that are siloed right now into a building and have them start to commingle with each other?’”

Vitale said the center’s main goal is to allow students to be more aware of each other and their work, and the building is designed to have flexible spaces but will be more “ambiguous” the closer you are to the outside of the building.

“I hope they walk out of this building seeing the world differently after having been able to see all the different facets of Columbia rather than just their own,” Vitale said. “It’s going to be great place to hang out [and] be inspired.”

Elana Schmidt, director of communications for Student Programming Board and sophomore business and entrepreneurship major, said she has doubts the center will be successful or if it is completely necessary.

“The whole background of why they want it is a good idea; I’m just worried more about the execution, the funding and students actually using it,” Schmidt said. “I’ve heard a lot of opinions from other people, and they’re on the same page. I’m very on-the-fence about it.”

Schmidt added that she and other students have questioned the center and  why the college is not directing funding into other programs instead.

“With students I’ve spoken to, they’re more worried about, ‘Oh, what about our courses, our departments? Why is this new building getting built if there are still issues funding certain programs?’” Schmidt said. “I just think, ‘Wow, $50 million could do a lot of things for Columbia besides just a new building.’”

Bree Bracey, executive vice president of communications for the Student Government Association and junior theatre major, said even though the center may not be necessary, she thinks students will benefit from the building’s amenities.

Bracey said she is concerned that the cost of the building will end up hurting the college but thinks it will be a good addition to the college’s campus.

“We’ve now seen some of those things we suggested being implemented into the preliminary plans, so that is really exciting,” she said.

Kim said the new student center is a “visual, powerful, fiscal manifestation” of the college’s commitment to student success.

“Hopefully what students will find in this student center is new opportunities to co-create and co-imagine,” he said. “I hope there’s a lot more opportunities for students to interact with industry, and for industry in the city and beyond to find our students, because now there will be a place.”