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College makes progress on multiple construction projects

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On Wednesday, Sept. 6, members of the college administration held a press briefing to address recent and ongoing construction projects on campus.

The briefing focused on six major projects, which included renovations to existing buildings and spaces as well as the construction of new buildings or the repurposing of old ones.

This past summer, Papazian Hall was torn down to make room for its replacement, a new building slated for completion in 2020 that will be named the Biology, Engineering, and Psychology (BEP) building. According to material prepared by the office of Vice President of Finance & Administration Greg Brown, BEP will serve as an interdisciplinary space to strengthen connections between academic departments across campus.

While construction will be performed year-round over the next three years, Brown said the college aims for the work to be as least invasive as possible.

“We try to do things as quickly as possible and we try to do the busiest and noisiest work in the summer months when [students are] not here,” Brown said.

In the final phase of the building’s construction, Hicks Hall will come down while the faculty offices and common spaces of the new building will inhabit Hicks’ footprint.

Whittier Hall opened in spring 2017 as a tentative placeholder for BEP while it is under construction. It presently houses psychology department offices as well as the engineering shop, though after the opening of BEP, it will transition to its designated use as a studio space for the art department.

“It is a very flexibly designed building so that it can fulfill multiple purposes over time,” Brown said.

Whittier is one of the first buildings on campus to adhere to the college’s new sustainability framework. It includes a variety of features such as solar power, aggressive storm water management, ground source heating and cooling, and a high-performing envelope.

Along with academic buildings, the PPR Apartment construction project, initially slated for completion before the start of the fall semester, was delayed by 6-8 weeks due to a failed steel subcontractor. According to Brown, the project remains under budget despite delay.

“There are a few things that still have yet to be finished and we are working on those,” said Brown. He noted that the furniture that will be in the living rooms has been back-ordered, and that the building is still being commissioned.

The apartments are also designed to have a variety of sustainability features. In the construction of the building, the baseball outfield was dug up and then replaced again in order to put in a geothermal well field. In addition, the rooftops have easily identifiable solar panels.

“They’re probably the most obvious solar panels on campus,” observed Brown. “One of the things we try to do in our construction is think about the educational component, so being able to see the solar panels I think reminds everybody that we’re actually committed to sustainability and we’re working on it.”

Several renovations were performed in Palmer and Pittenger over this past summer, such as bathroom renovations. In addition, a link is being built between the two buildings that will be accessible from the courtyard by a ramp.

ADA Program Coordinator Susan Smythe noted that the project was not completed in conjunction with the opening of the apartments so that construction efforts could be focused on the more extensive project.

“We made the triage decision to finish New PPR rather than keep the link on the same schedule. We’re now putting full attention over there,” said Smythe.

Sproul Hall is in the process of being repurposed into a shared space for the Intercultural Center, religious and spiritual life, and International Student Services. It will be renamed the Hormel-Nguyen Intercultural Center after the two alumni donors who financed its renovation.

“From the Deans’ office and the college’s perspective, we think this is going to be a wonderful way for students to get together and really so that there can be cross group communication and collaboration,” said Brown.

The telescope also came out of the roof this summer, and was donated to Supporting STEM and Space Inc. to be relocated to a community in Northwest Arkansas.

Janet Semler, the Director of Capital Planning & Project Management, believed that the repurposing of the telescope would inspire the members of the Arkansas community.

“It [ignites] all these young people’s interest in astronomy, and that’s what makes it so cool, that they’re using it as an educational tool,” said Semler.

Swarthmore’s recent renovations and ongoing construction projects will create new spaces for the campus community and in some cases bring new purpose to old ones.

College plans a revitalized, more pedestrian campus

in Around Campus/News by
A diagram of the Master Plan released by the College.
A rendering included in the college’s new master plan

In 20 years, Swarthmore students might live in a suite-style dorm next to Mary Lyon, spend an afternoon in a Willets courtyard built on the site of a demolished Mephistos Lounge, study biology in a large glassy building on the site of the current parking lot next to the Science Center, and enjoy a reconfigured and expanded McCabe Library, Sharples Dining Hall and student center in Clothier Hall. Athletes might run indoors on an NCAA-competition-ready track, and visit guests in the Town Center West inn. A largely pedestrian path might replace the loop road around Papazian Hall, and admissions visitors might park in Benjamin West parking lot before walking up to Parrish Hall.

Some of these plans are more definite than others: an architect has already been selected for the biology building (which will also house the engineering and psychology departments), while most of the other projects remain many years away. But all are proposed as possibilities for the campus in a new master plan, released yesterday. The plan, which is available on the college’s website, was produced for the college by Ayers Saint Gross, a Baltimore-based architecture and planning firm.

The proposals shown in the plan represent “something about the capacity of the campus for new and renovated facilities that are roughly consistent with what we project are going to be our needs,” said Provost Tom Stephenson in a press conference with reporters last week. The plan, college officials say, grew out of the college’s recent strategic plan.

The new plan shows a rough path for campus growth and makes various general recommendations, but does not give a precise timeline for any projects. Decisions about specific projects will be made by the college as it determines what it most needs and seeks out funding for design and construction.

The buildings shown in the master plan’s renderings and on its maps are “placeholders,” said Executive Assistant for Facilities and Services Paula Dale at the conference. “They’re of the approximate volume that it was determined we’re going to need, and the footprint is: given that you need a building of this volume, where is the best place on campus to put it?”

Officials said the plan shows more new construction and renovation projects — in particular, more new dorms — than will likely actually occur over the coming two decades. The plan proposes the demolition of Mephistos Lounge and addition of new wings to Willets, a new connecting dorm building between Dana and Hallowell halls, a new dorm next to Mary Lyon and another new dorm near Pittenger, Palmer and Roberts halls.

Other student life projects include the already-under-construction Matchbox building, which will house a new fitness center, space for wellness programs and a black box theater, as well as the Sharples renovation and expansion and Clothier renovation.

The plan’s academically-focused projects include an expansion of Lang Performing Arts Center further into the Crum Woods, a renovation of Papazian Hall, an expansion of Pearson Hall, an expansion of Hicks Hall with an indoor connection to Beardsley Hall, an expansion of Martin Hall, a small expansion of the Science Center, a new building behind the Science Center, as well as the new biology, engineering and psychology building and renovation and expansion of McCabe Library. The need for expanded engineering facilities is driven, the plan says, by “accreditation requirements.”

Several of the academically-focused projects in the plan, like the new building behind the science center, are left deliberately vague to leave space for future needs.

The plan gives several options for moving around academic departments as new construction and renovation projects progress, including relocating the psychology department to a renovated and expanded Martin Hall.

The plan’s athletic projects include the Matchbox, a three-story athletic administration building with a public entrance to Tarble Pavilion next to the Lamb-Miller Field House, a comprehensive renovation of the athletics complex (which would bring the indoor track up to competition standards) and a reconfiguration of Cunningham Fields.

The plan also shows a number of landscape, path, road and parking improvements and reconfigurations across the campus, including more green space between the tunnel under the SEPTA tracks and the athletics complex, a new parking lot behind the new biology building, removing parking from the service road behind the Science Center and making a pedestrian square in front of Lang Music Building, as well as removing vehicle access (except for service vehicles) from the loop road around Papazian.

In the fall the college released its parking and transportation master plan, which is separate from the campus master plan.

The new campus master plan also recommends creating a new, less confusing entrance sequence to campus for first-time visitors: admissions visitors would park in Benjamin West parking lot and then walk up to Parrish Hall, bringing the sequence closer to the way it was when most visitors walked up to Parrish from the train station.

Preserving open space and caring for the environment are two themes of the plan, which is subtitled “The Responsible Capacity of the Land.” The plan recommends improving connections to the Crum Woods and renovating as many buildings as possible — instead of just constructing new ones.

Work on a few of the projects proposed in the plan is already underway. The Philadelphia-based architecture firm Ballinger, which specializes in higher education projects, was selected to design the new biology building. Construction is well underway on the Matchbox building, and design work has begun on a new path between the tunnel under the SEPTA tracks and the athletics complex. Construction will likely begin later this year on Town Center West and on the new connector dorm between Dana and Hallowell.

Ayers Saint Gross has done considerable planning work for colleges and universities, including master plans for Harvard’s proposed Allston campus expansion, Johns Hopkins University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Carnegie Mellon University. The firm is also responsible for a new master plan for Baltimore’s popular Inner Harbor shopping and amusement district.

College officials said they have a longstanding relationship with the firm, which advised them on the renovation of Parrish Hall undertaken in the mid-2000s. They said they have worked extensively with Adam Gross, one of the firm’s principals.

On the college’s end, Dale served as the project manager, and Stephenson and Vice President for Facilities and Services Stu Hain served as co-chairs of the project’s advisory committee. That committee consists mostly of administrators and faculty members, while the project’s steering committee consists mostly of senior administrators.

No students sit on either committee. College officials said they thought students were given ample opportunity to give their input on the plan as part of the planning process, and that their input was taken seriously. They said that a proposal to replace the tennis courts near Wharton Hall with a new dorm was removed from the plan largely as a result of student opposition.

Ayers Saint Gross planners and college officials initially started work before the recession, then stopped, and resumed after its worst effects had passed. Planners visited campus twice, in December 2011 and January 2012, when they held public sessions, walked with focus groups around campus and met with various constituencies. A draft plan was completed last year, and on Wednesday, the slightly modified final version was publicly released.

Previously, the college did not have a master plan, though it has had such plans in the past. In 2002, it published a “Land Use Analysis” document that assessed the ways in which the campus worked and was experienced by the community, by the Cambridge, MA architecture firm William Rawn Associates, also responsible for David Kemp and Alice Paul halls. A section of the introduction reads: “The college does not have a master plan nor is what follows such a plan… our experience tell us [sic] that these plans grow old very quickly and once the thread is broken, the plan finds its way into someone’s drawer.”

Hain, the college’s vice president for facilities and services, described the current planning effort as a “discipline, in a way, of being able to think about what we needed to do over [twenty years] and where we might put things.”

The new plan might be in a drawer in 20 years, he said, but added, “I believe that it would come out of the drawer and be the starting point for some other effort.”

Bonds finance new dorms

in Around Campus/News by

This past July, Swarthmore College issued a $47 million bond through the Swarthmore Borough Authority to refinance previous bond issues and to fund the construction of additional dorm rooms connecting residence halls Dana Hall and Hallowell Hall.

By law, if the college is constructing a building for educational purposes, for instance academic buildings or residence halls, the college is able to borrow tax exempt loans, meaning the college pays a lower interest rate. Indeed, without debt, most of the academic or residential buildings on campus wouldn’t exist.

The college issued its first bond in 1982. Not including the latest bond, the school has borrowed over $206 million for eligible projects over the last thirty-one years.

If Swarthmore College currently has an endowment over 1.6 billion, why doesn’t the college use this endowment fund or gifts to construct these campus buildings? Suzanne Welsh, vice president for finance and treasurer, said, “It is to the economic advantage of Swarthmore College, within a reasonable amount of debt, to use debt because it places the college in a better off long term position by raising unrestricted gifts that the college can put into the endowment and using this low cost source of money to construct buildings.” With this strategy, unrestricted gifts placed in the endowment fund usually earn a higher return. Thus, the college and most colleges utilize a strategy of borrowing tax exempt versus utilizing endowment funds or unrestricted gifts to finance campus buildings.

Even though the college chooses a strategy that revolves around the utilization of debt, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, two main credit rating agencies, rate Swarthmore respectively Aaa and AAA, the highest rating indicating the college has a reasonable level of debt. As the college is unable to issue bonds directly, it must issue the bonds to be able to borrow money through the Swarthmore Borough Authority. Although the college uses the Borough to be able to borrow money, Susan Smythe, borough government president, said that Swarthmore College’s borrowing strategy plays no role in the Borough’s finances, since the Borough is merely a vehicle for the bond issue.

The current bond issue, which settled in July for $47 million encompasses the refinancing of the college’s 2008 and 2009 bonds and roughly $18 million of new money for a project designed to add more residence hall space in the form of 75 beds, in the area between and connecting Dana and Hallowell Halls. C. Stuart Hain, vice president for facilities and services, said, “The driving idea behind the construction of this project is to be able to put elevators into the new dorm, making both Dana and Hallowell Halls accessible for students with disabilities.” This project is currently in the stages of design, but it aims to turn the newly connected dorm into five stories instead of four, improve the lower level rooms, and leave the bottom floor as mostly public space, which will serve a similar function as the trailer that will be lost in the construction process.

Furthermore, a new lounge will be created as another facet of the project, with the intention of the lounge being similar to the Mephisto lounge in Willets but with a terrace. A committee has been formed to oversee the construction of this project and is currently in the process of getting land use permission from the Swarthmore Borough.  As for when the community will be formally introduced to this project, Hain said, “By late fall and before winter break the committee will be in the position to show the whole community the drawings and plans for this project.” Although the college currently has already borrowed the funds for this project, look forward to seeing construction start the summer of 2014 and the newly connected dorm to open the summer of 2015.

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