Building Boom Helps Swarthmore College Keep an Edge

New residence hall adjacent to Pittinger, Palmer, and Roberts Halls. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

New residence hall adjacent to Pittinger, Palmer, and Roberts Halls. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

The Swarthmorean recently spoke with Greg Brown, Swarthmore College’s vice president of Finance and Development, to come up to speed on the surge of construction activity at the college. Excerpts of our interview follow.

The Swarthmorean: What’s going on at 101 S. Chester Road?
Greg Brown: We purchased 101 S. Chester a couple of years ago. Our development office moved in three years ago on the third and fourth floors, and in order to create more space on campus for core academic mission, we’re moving more administrative offices to 101 at the end of March or early April. Payroll, human relations, business, investment, and communications offices will be occupying the first and second floors of the building. The exterior work is probably the most important part — we’re putting in a new elevator shaft for the building [on the end facing the roundabout]. The elevator had never gone to the basement before, so the new elevator will be up to code and we will also be able to use the basement for conference rooms. It will be a major enhancement.

TS: Across Chester Road, how is the dorm project going? Is that going to be ready for next fall?
GB: The intent is to be open in August. They’re working pretty feverishly to get that done, and they’re on schedule. That facility will house about 120 students, and units are suite-style so five or six people will be sharing an apartment with a kitchen. Our redesign of the meal plans means that students who have kitchens will be able to buy most of their groceries, hopefully at the Co-op.

TS: Is that 120 beds in addition to current dorms or will some rooms be decommissioned?
GB: We have crowding in some of our current dorms: spaces that used to be doubles are triples; that sort of thing. And some dorms need to go offline to be refurbished. So it’s really going to net us about 60 new beds, and upgrades our housing stock.

TS: Is this increase in capacity part of a strategic drive toward a larger student body and more robust facilities?
GB: We’ve been growing the student body, and there are about 100 more students now than there were six years ago. From our analysis, we wouldn’t want to get bigger than 1,700, and we’re around 1,600 right now. Any growth will be incremental and over the next five years. We’re kind of at a good size now, so we want to be very careful about how we do that.

But we’ve been chipping away at elements of the campus master plan on our website, which from my perspective is a good space/needs analysis but not a full detailed master plan. [For instance] the biggest single thing we needed to do was the Biology, Engineering and Psychology (BEP) building, which the master plan has in the parking lot of DuPont Circle. And for various reasons that project got moved onto campus, which is going to involve the demolition of some buildings. [These buildings] Hicks and Papazian Halls have outlived their usefulness… and the cost of refurbishing and repurposing got to be too much. And there was a really strong argument about moving this major new building (BEP) more to the center of campus and not on the periphery, so those were the main drivers.

TS: How does the new building off Whittier fit into the plan?
GB: That is “swing space” which we are calling the Whittier Academic building. For the next three years, while BEP is under construction, it’s going to house psychology faculty [formerly in Papazian] as well as engineering shops [now in Hicks]. Ultimately it will become space for the art department, and so we’re building it to be very much a flexible shell. It’s going to have terrific light so it’s really going to lend itself to art studio space as well as engineering shops. That building is on a faster track even than the residence halls; we expect to take occupancy in late Spring.

TS: That will coincide with the beginning of work on BEP?
GB: So, BEP: The plan is to demolish Papazian this summer to get us started on the 3-year construction of BEP. All of that is through the north entrance to the campus. There are some challenges, we’ve been working with Friends Meetinghouse [to minimize impact upon the nursery day school and other uses]. There will be a sidewalk on other side of Whittier, which will cut into the front yard of some houses which the college owns. We’re working with the arboretum [to optimize the streetscape].

We have preliminary approvals from the borough, and we’re still gathering cost estimates. We have a large lead gift for the biology building, but pretty much everything else we’re working on is funded through bonds which we issue through the borough.

Whittier Academic Building. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

Whittier Academic Building. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

TS: Does all this activity set the College apart?
GB: To a large degree we’re catching up to what our competitors have already done. Our activity level is fairly high, but our peers have been [upgrading] science buildings for last several years. Demand for better dorm space is something we’re all dealing with. Generally speaking, we’re not that different from most of our peers right now.

One more important project, though: we have a generous donation from two alumni, Jim Hormel and Michael Nguyen, to repurpose the Sproul Observatory for cultural and religious life. That will be a renovation project that’s going to start this summer. The intercultural center is now crowded into space near Clothier, adjacent to the observatory, which has been used sporadically for various offices. This is a really exciting move for us, and an important new gathering place for students.

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