Building Boom: UMass makes headway on construction projects

Last modified: Friday, December 06, 2013
AMHERST — A year and a half after completing a 50-year master plan, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is well on its way to becoming the greener, more modern, densely built campus stakeholders envisioned.

That’s according to Dennis Swinford, director of campus planning, who updated about 25 staff members and neighbors at a public forum Wednesday on the progress the university is making toward that goal.

“I think we’re on track,” Swinford said after his presentation. “We’ve been really busy doing a lot of things.”

Among the things the university can cross off its list are major projects including the $19 million Commonwealth Honors College and the $157 million Life Sciences Laboratory, he said.

In his presentation, he compared side-by-side maps of the current campus with the campus the master plan calls for. To achieve the goal of filling in the core of the campus with more academic and residential buildings and spaces for student activities, the university plans to replace parking lots in the core with buildings or green spaces, sending cars instead to five parking garages, and to tear down Bartlett and Hill halls.

Another major goal, to make the campus more pedestrian- and biker-friendly, will involve adding bike lanes and sidewalks to more roads around campus. Swinford also said the university may make some inner-campus roads into pedestrian-only ways in an effort to channel traffic in a loop around campus on Commonwealth and Massachusetts avenues, Governors Drive, and Thatcher Way.

Swinford named the completed Commonwealth Honors College, which features both residential and academic buildings, as an example of the kind of mixed-use areas the university wants to create in the campus core.

“It’s probably the best honors college residential complex in the country,” he said. “The students love it. You know you’re on campus, but you know you’re somewhere special.”

Other completed projects Swinford highlighted were the construction of the Life Sciences Laboratory and the Structural Testing Facility for engineering students at Tilson Farm, the renovations of Hampshire Dining Commons, and relocation of the PVTA Training Facility.

He said the first phase of the Agricultural Learning Center project is finished in that fields were already planted and harvested this year. The second phase, which is still in the planning stage, involves renovating and moving a historic horse barn and farmhouse from the inner campus to UMass Adams-Wysocki Field at 911 North Pleasant St., where the center will be located.

The first phases of several other projects, including a disc golf course on Orchard Hill and renovations to the Lincoln Campus Center concourse, were also finished, he said. Both projects are expected to be finished next year.

Among the projects now in the construction phase, the central campus infrastructure project will relocate utilities and improve pedestrian ways, including creating a pedestrian plaza. “It will be a new area of open space on campus, right outside the Student Union,” he said.

Of the two new buildings being built, the new academic classroom building will be a 150,000-square foot building next to the Campus Center. It will house communications, journalism, linguistics and other departments when it opens, likely in fall 2014, Swinford said.

Also expected to be completed next year is the UMass Basketball Champions Center, a 49,500-square-foot practice facility for the men’s and women’s basketball teams, and new football training facilities and a press box in McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

Items on the university’s wish list in the design phase include a 350,000-square foot physical sciences building; a South College academic facility for English and other humanities; a 49,700-square foot integrated design building for architecture and related fields; the reuse of the former Marks Meadow School for the College of Education; renovating the existing South College building and Western Experiment Center; and installing equipment in the Massachusetts Live Science Center’s laboratories.

There were no residential projects on Swinford’s list of projects that are completed, ongoing or planned for the near future, something that did not escape residents who attended the meeting.

John Fox of Fearing Street said he was amazed by what the university was planning and accomplishing, but thought building a place for students to live on campus should be part of the plan.

“We always hear that the university doesn’t have money to build more housing,” he said.

The master plan establishes several areas where the university could build housing, including south of Massachusetts Avenue, between Thatcher Way and East Pleasant Street, in the Governor’s Drive area, and on the university’s 150-acre Hadley Farm.

Swinford said that since the master plan document was created in 2012, under then chancellor Robert C. Holub, he looks forward to reviewing it with current Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy.

“It’s a vital, living document we’d like to see updated and changed over time,” he said.

“We have a great campus here,” he told the audience. “We want to make sure the physical environment is commensurate with that.”

Maps and information about campus planning is available at www.umass.edu/cp.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.