New Community Commons Set for Feb. 29, Other Construction Updates

“You’ve probably noticed that things look a little different around campus,” said Ryder Maston ’26 in a recent video informing the Swarthmore community about construction for the Spring semester. 

Maston, an intern with the College’s Office of Sustainability, spent the video running through the various construction projects taking place, most of which are part of Swarthmore’s “To Zero by Thirty-Five” energy transformation. The Phoenix took a deeper look at the current status of construction. Since Fall 2022, following the completion of the new Dining Center, work has been underway to renovate the old Sharples Dining Hall into a new Community Commons. In an interview with The Phoenix, Associate Vice President for Sustainable Facilities Operations and Capital Planning Andy Feick revealed that the new Community Commons will be opened on Leap Day, Feb. 29. The college is planning an opening ceremony for the Commons and will share details soon. 

The renovated building will house the Office of Student Engagement, student clubs, and coffee and snack options, as well as provide new spaces for lounging, socializing, and storage. In an email to the wider Swarthmore community, Associate Vice President for Campus Services Anthony Coschignano shared that Essie Mae’s Cafe will move from its current home in Clothier Hall to Sharples (and will be renamed Essie’s Corner) over the summer, and Crumb Cafe leadership confirmed that they will be moving as well. Essie’s Corner, he said, “will build on Essie Mae’s menu of fresh-to-order sandwiches with a selection of new and healthy items — including grain bowls and made-to-order options — and a marketplace of snacks and prepared items.”

“We are very excited,” Feick said. “It’s beautiful and amazing and I believe students will really enjoy it.”

For a majority of the spring semester, a section of Magill Walk near Parrish Hall has been fenced off to allow construction workers to dig into the ground and lay pipes that connect buildings to geothermal heating. This – combined with the fenced-off section of Parrish Beach near McCabe Library – has restricted access to a main campus North-South passage, raising accessibility concerns. Feick told The Phoenix that this section of the walkway will be reopened on Feb. 16, barring inclement weather conditions that delay progress.

Underneath the Dining and Community Center (DCC) complex will be the geo-exchange plant for the geothermal energy transformation central to the “To Zero by Thirty-Five” project. This energy plan, which massively increases energy efficiency and reduces emissions, works by digging wells 800 feet into the ground. As Maston explains in the video, heat is extracted in the summer, and then transported and stored extremely deep underground. In the winter, when heat is needed around campus, it is distributed around campus.

“Phase one of the well field drilling is now complete and with the wells installed and connected, we can now begin the restoration of Mertz Lawn,” Maston said in the video. 

Mertz Lawn has had fencing installed to allow the digging of the wells, but fences will remain up until the Fall 2024 semester to protect the grass as the college works to restore it ecologically. Because of its lengthy timeline which spans over a decade for the net zero endeavor, and recent economic and political factors, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact costs for the total construction efforts. However, based on recent estimates: the DCC project will cost $55.7 million, paid by $14 million in gifts and $41.7 million in mortgage-like debt, the Central Geoexchange plant will cost $7.4 million, funded by $7.4 million in gifts, and Martin Hall will cost $67 million, funded by $10 million in anticipated gifts and $57 million in debt through tax-exempt bonds.  

Feick told The Phoenix that some of the college’s costs for the net zero endeavor will be offset by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) introduced and passed by national Congressional Democrats and signed into law by President Joe Biden. The broad legislative package of economic and taxation policies seeks, in part, to encourage the transition to sustainable energy through subsidization of both private and public renewable energy endeavors. Under the policy, Swarthmore will receive compensation for its production of renewable energy and energy efficiency, but Feick says that due to the strong volatility of the inflation rate at home and abroad (once as high as 9% in the U.S. and even higher around the world), it is hard to know how much the policy will offset the cost. Like all major capital projects, these construction efforts are funded through “a combination of gifts, debt financing and other sources, like the IRA,” Feick detailed.

The video shared by the college also talks about other potential disruptions around campus. According to the video, work around Parrish Hall will continue to connect North campus buildings to the geothermal exchange. Currently, the East entrance is open while the west entrance is partially closed. The college plans for work on Parrish Hall to be finished by the end of the spring. Work to lay piping and connect buildings is also being done on the north quad near Kohlberg Hall, where over the semester, work will shift to near Martin Hall, then near the Science Center, and then finally to near Singer Hall over the summer. The longest-term current project, finishing in Fall 2025, is the renovation of Martin Hall into what the college calls an “interdisciplinary technological center” that will house the departments of computer science, film and media studies, and a new media center. Also included in the renovation is a film production room, screening room, editing suites, new computer classrooms, and an outdoor plaza.

For a college frequently lauded for its beautiful arboretum campus, the construction that has dominated the landscape has been an obvious change. In addition, accessibility concerns have been raised by changing mobility and projects. Feick reported that executing all of these plans during an already complex time has made them especially challenging to implement according to plan.

“I have overseen capital construction work on college campuses for several decades and I have never found it so challenging to deliver a project on-time and on-budget,” Feick remarked, referencing furloughed and retiring workers, upended supply chains, international inflation, and pandemic-related chaos. For example, the Dining Center was opened four months later than scheduled, which Feick said then caused repercussions for other campus construction.

“Nonetheless, the College and its partners have done a good job of controlling budgets and assessing project scopes in the face of high inflation,” Feick said. “[I am] proud of the college’s ability to deliver highly sustainable and beautiful buildings and spaces that have been serving the evolving programmatic needs of the College’s many programs.” 

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