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Creating Community Within a Sprawling Urban Campus

Creating Community Within a Sprawling Urban Campus

Nick Hodges
September 28th, 2015

As higher-education institutions rapidly adapt their curricula and campuses to accommodate new models of learning, the line between places for studying and socializing, learning and leisure time has become blurred, to say the least. We’ve written about how that transition has prompted big changes in the conception and design of libraries, but it’s also led colleges and universities to reconsider the traditional role of the student union.

With the new Student Union at Portland Community College’s (PCC) Cascade campus, which opened its doors earlier this year, we see this trend extending to the community-college level. With approximately 90,000 students, Portland Community College is Oregon’s largest post-secondary institution. PCC is investing nearly $58 million of a $374 million capital bond to expand and upgrade the 23,000-student Cascade Campus, located in urban north/northeast Portland. The new student union provides a hub for student life, where PCC’s largely commuter student body can take a break with fellow students between classes, participate in group projects, and engage informal learning—activities that research has shown to improve student success.

Designed and built concurrently with a new academic building, the new union also faced some complex challenges.

Catalyzing a new campus vision.

The proposal for a new, stand-alone student center emerged from a broad planning process involving intensive engagement with college stakeholders as well as residents and business owners from the surrounding neighborhood. Previously, the student center was relegated to a cramped basement space – too small to support its programming and lacking visibility. The planning process evaluated options for renovating the existing center or building new, depending on a variety of other considerations. Key among these was the challenge of accommodating growing enrollments while addressing neighborhood concerns about traffic and parking

Through detailed analysis of traffic patterns and neighborhood parking supplies, a plan emerged for managing parking demand and reducing the need for structured parking. This plan included leasing underutilized lots (e.g. at churches), subsidizing transit passes, and hiring a transportation coordinator to facilitate use of alternative transportation, as well as annual reporting and regular monitoring to measure the management plan’s effectiveness.

This approach offered numerous advantages for the campus and the community. Instead of a multi-level garage, PCC has built the new student union, academic building, and plaza over a much smaller below-grade parking garage within the campus footprint. A second new plaza will replace the old student center building, reopening the heart of the mall. These public plazas will unify the campus and provide enhanced open space for the larger community. Finally, locating the new buildings and garage on campus also preserved the historical commercial blocks.

A center for student life.

The new, 36,000-square-foot Student Union, the first true student union in the PCC system, is designed to encourage collaboration and interaction. The design organizes the building’s program—food retail, student lounge, gaming room, resource centers, student organization suites, and meetings rooms—as intersecting blocks around an internal atrium to create a light-filled environment with views in all directions, as well as strong visual connections between floors and out to the plaza. The visual connection was especially important to the student organizations that use the plaza as an extension of their shared facilities on the third floor.

Completed as part of a larger plan that includes a new academic building and plaza, the Union, along with the other buildings, is built over below-grade parking garage that helped alleviate the community’s concerns about traffic and parking around the growing campus. The public plazas unify the campus internally while providing enhanced open space for the larger community. At the same time, the Student Union’s contemporary presence and quality of space redefines Cascade’s identity and the student experience for the better.

All photos (c) Jeremy Bitterman

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