College plans a revitalized, more pedestrian campus

A diagram of the Master Plan released by the College.
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.”

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