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A complex case of repurposing Sharples

in Columns/Op-Eds/Opinions by

Dining halls shape your college experience. Not only does it provide you with the food you need to sustain your daily routine, it also serves as a social space where students can relax, hang out together, or meet new faces they have never seen on a daily basis. With this importance in mind, we can see how Sharples, as the only dining hall at Swarthmore, influences the social dynamic within our institution. Therefore, when Swarthmore announced its plan on November 28 to construct a new dining hall and convert Sharples into a student union, everyone should supposedly feel delighted. Finally, we will have better food. Finally, we need not rush to Sharples right after our last morning class. Finally, we can linger at our dining table as much as we want because our new dining hall is large enough for every student. This article argues that these dining hall improvements are unlikely to happen if Swarthmore pursues its current construction plan. Therefore, Swarthmore should situate the student union inside the new building and renovate Sharples instead.

To begin with, let’s examine the two arguments in support of building a new dining hall: Sharples is overcrowded because it supports only 900 students, and it does not support individualized cooking. Both arguments may not necessarily be the case. Indeed, it is true that the number of Swarthmore students exceeds the maximum capacity of Sharples. However, not all students dine at the same time. Consider two students, the first’s morning class ends at 11:10AM on Tuesday, and the second’s morning class ends at 12:35PM. Even if both students usually have lunch, they will rarely have lunch at the same time because of their schedule. Moreover, Swarthmore has many dining options aside from Sharples: Indian and Chinese food ordered from off campus providers in Kohlberg and the Science Center, and some grab-and-go food both at Sharples and beside SCI199. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that Sharples has to serve lunch to 1500 students simultaneously. Because Sharples is less crowded during breakfast and dinner, the same reasonings still hold. From my experience, even when Sharples becomes extremely crowded, the maximum time I spend waiting on the line is less than ten minutes and I never have trouble finding a place to sit. Therefore, simply because the new dining hall would serve more students does not sufficiently justify its construction. The congestion is not as severe as it is portrayed.

Moving on the second argument: Sharples does not support individualized cooking. This argument is true for current Sharples; offering an individualized cooking in a dining hall where students occasionally have to spend ten minutes to get food is impractical. However, if Swarthmore wishes to offer individualized cooking, the College can simply renovate Sharples, for instance, by relocating some of the tables more closely with one another. There are many unoccupied spaces that can potentially be renovated to create an individualized cooking space. Even if this individualized cooking space may not be as spacious as those at our peer institution, it can still be created.

With the idea that Sharples’ condition is not as severe as people usually claim established, this article will argue that the geography of current Sharples makes it difficult to have any broad space necessary for a student union. As of now, Sharples has the two floors: the upper floor has two meeting rooms, whereas the first floor serves food and provides tables for its guests. Recognize that both the meeting rooms upstairs are relatively small in comparison to other areas inside Sharples. Therefore, if Swarthmore proceeds with its proposed plan, the first floor at current Sharples will be the heart of the new student center. What does this mean? The two rooms (salad bar and Room 004) on the first floor are so disconnected from other sections that they will hardly be of any use. For such sections as the food service and the quieter dining room, they are not large enough for students to gather together. With these constraints of current Sharples, it can be concluded that Swarthmore must spend a significant amount of resource into re-organizing Sharples in order to construct a suitable space for a student union. Therefore, it is more reasonable to construct a new building as a space for student union.

Because Sharples is designed as a dining hall, it takes more resources to convert current Sharples into a student union than to renovate spaces inside the building. Congestion and individualized cooking may be some of the drawbacks Sharples has, but they do not create so many problems that a new dining hall must be built. In essence, Swarthmore students want two things: better food and more spaces for social gathering. These goals can be reached more efficiently if we utilize buildings in the ways they are originally designed: Sharples for food and a new building for a new student union.

College to make plans to build new dining hall, update Sharples

in News by

Next semester, the college will begin the planning process to build a new dining hall and renovate Sharples as a student union space.

In the last few years, the college has created two comprehensive reports about necessary improvements to the campus and student life in general: the Campus Master Plan in 2013, and the Student Experience Visioning Study Report in Feb. 2017. These two reports cover a wide variety of issues and include input from students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

The reports includes recommendations ranging from “adjustment in faculty members’ teaching load,” to making McCabe more open and limiting the “fortress-like appearance.” Both reports also included much about the need for a change in the way food is served on campus, and the need for a student union space. The new construction project is meant to address these problems.

“We engaged both a dining consultant and an architect last summer just to give us some ideas and I’d say sort of the key findings there was that the existing Sharples building has outlived its useful life as a dining hall,” said Greg Brown, Vice President for Finance and Administration.

Sharples was built in the 1960s and was designed to hold around 900 students. As the college has grown and student preference has changed, the building has seen different limitations. Both the design and the size of Sharples lead to limitations. The small size makes it difficult for students and faculty to find a place to sit and enjoy themselves while eating.

“In my experience meal time is one of the few times where students really give themselves permission to [give themselves a break], and if we don’t have enough space where students feel like they can linger a little bit and have those conversations about the seminar or what’s going to be happening this weekend, it really takes away from one of the most important opportunities for those kinds of connections that we think are so crucial to [students’] experience” said Liz Braun, Dean of Students.

In addition to the size, the construction of the serving room leads to limitations in how food can be served. According to Brown, many peer institutions are utilizing more individualized cooking methods that are not feasible in Sharples.

The current plan is to continue serving food in Sharples as the new dining hall is being constructed. Once the new building is complete, food service will move, and Sharples will be renovated and turned into a student union space.

This will allow the college to meet the demand for both a better dining facility and a student union. Until it burned down in the mid 1980s, Old Tarble served as a student union space where people could gather in a social capacity. The two reports show that students and alumni believe the campus is missing this kind of space now.

“The space in Clothier that includes Essie Mae’s and [Paces] was intended to replace that and it does certain things well but it really doesn’t function as a student union, and that was the feedback we heard over and over again from students, and then we heard it also when we were talking to alums, gosh what’s really missing from campus is a place. A place where we can gather as a student body,” said Brown.

Planning for this project will begin next semester. Brown stressed that the college has an aggressive plan to try to complete the project as quickly as possible, but estimates that the planning process will take at least one year with the construction of the new dining hall taking approximately one year to 18 months after the planning.This means that the earliest the new dining hall could open up would be in Spring of 2020 with the Sharples renovation following that.

Brown and Braun both recognize the importance of finding a balance between the needs of current students and future students.

“I think we’ve also tried to be thoughtful about a balance of longer term projects and also shorter term projects that can provide more immediate benefits to current students. So when you think about some of the smaller residence hall renovations that we’ve been able to do, the matchbox went up pretty quickly, Sprowl’s going to be open in a year. So I think we’ve tried to create a mix of opportunities, some things that students will be able to access in their time,” said Braun.

In addition to the new dining hall and Sharples renovation, the college is also beginning to think about plans for Martin once Biology moves into the BEP, what upgrades can be done to athletic facilities, and upgrades to the libraries. While designing these projects, the college focuses on designing spaces that can be flexible throughout time.  

“The other thing we have to recognize is what students want today both in terms of classroom space and social space and residence hall space might not be what students want 15 years from now, 30 years from now, so every project that we’re doing we’re trying to build in a level of flexibility so that if in 10 years from now students wanted to use things in a different way it would be relatively easy to convert it or to kind of reimagine how something’s set up,” said Braun.

Students who are interested in getting involved in renovating Sharples and building a new dining hall can join SGO’s Sharples Renovation Committee.

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