RUSSELLVILLE — On a regular weekday, there’s hustle and bustle at the intersection of O and Arkansas streets, the main entrance to Arkansas Tech University.
Students drive onto campus trying to find that coveted parking spot. Others walk or bike to classes from nearby apartments. And even more mill around farther along O Street, which extends west through the middle of the campus and almost splits it in two.
But the state’s third-largest public university has something else in mind for that entryway.
It is looking to limit the vehicular traffic, creating a more pedestrian-friendly entrance, and to buff up the nearby area with new buildings that will draw people onto the campus, according to a proposal in its newest campus master plan. The plan, a living document, will guide the university’s renovations and new capital projects for the next two decades.
“This is a plan,” Arkansas Tech President Robin Bowen said. “And we will need to try to look for funding opportunities to help us with the plan moving forward. We’re very excited about it, and we want to move forward as quickly as we can, dependent on funding assistance that we’re likely to receive.”
In 2015, the university started a strategic planning process, after which the university stated its four main goals, including giving students a learning environment for them to succeed. Once that wrapped up in January, Arkansas Tech began laying the groundwork for the campus master plan, retaining architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, and creating committees to focus on certain aspects of the university.
The firm’s representatives presented the plan to the campus community last week. The group will put on the finishing touches before the plan goes to Arkansas Tech’s board of trustees for approval Oct. 19. The panel will direct planning phases for each of the individual projects, said Sam Strasner, the university’s spokesman.
From the study, university leaders learned that Arkansas Tech’s main needs involve updating a number of its facilities, Bowen said.
The university asked the firm to identify the remaining lifetime of each of its buildings and whether it would be more prudent to rebuild or to renovate. As an example, Bowen said Witherspoon Hall — a 45-year-old building that houses liberal arts programs, along with band and music programs — has passed its prime. But the university cannot tear down the building until it has a replacement, she said.
Another part of the study looked at Arkansas Tech’s current usage of its buildings and found that the campus had more than enough capacity for classrooms but was lacking in office spaces. Faculty shared offices in multiple instances. Now, campus leaders are considering repurposing some spaces to create more academic offices, Bowen said.
The campus master plan sets out priority projects, incremental or summer projects and long-term aspirations.
It lists more than a dozen projects as a “priority,” including updating card access for its campus buildings; having a new building for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, typically known as STEM, which would bring the “tech back into Tech;” building a new performing arts center; getting more farmland; adding new on-campus student housing; and building a new student union/recreational center.
The firm heard from several groups that the university sorely needs a recreational center for its size, said Peter Baird, an associate at the design firm.
The campus has grown continuously from fall 2004 through fall 2015, with a jump in enrollment by 85 percent in that time period. This fall, the campus has 11,804 students, according to preliminary state data.
Currently, Arkansas Tech students have basketball courts, volleyball courts and a gym, called Tech Fit, in the Hull Physical Education Building. The building is also home to health and wellness academic courses, which also use the gym for classes, said Jayson Simmons, 20, the vice president of the Student Government Association. Because of that, students who want to work out have to work around the class scheduling of the gym, and many often go off campus, he said.
The association had talked with university leaders about a possible new student fee to help pay for a recreational center, Simmons of Little Rock said. The association said students would likely back a new fee, but the group wanted to know what exactly would go inside of the new building, he said.
The design firm considered various places where the Student Union/recreational center could go and determined its best fit was near the O and Arkansas streets entrance.
“Imagine that you’re a first-time visitor, and you’re coming in from that O and Arkansas entrance,” Baird said. “You might go into Brown Hall and go into admissions there and follow that pathway up into an area which is a really vibrant and active and flexible space.”
The visitor could then look through the new recreational center and hear the tennis shoes squeaking on the gym floors, Baird said.
“Personally, I like the idea of walking down the center of the street and having a place where you can have tents and events and really claim that space for different activities …,” he said. “The other key aspect to this building is that I think this draws you into the campus. It’s going to be a permeable building which allows you to pass through … and take you through different parts of the campus.”
On the south end of campus, the design firm has envisioned a performing arts center near a developing El Paso Avenue. The arts center would fortify the “town-gown” connection, or the relationship between the university and the city of Russellville, and could bring more community members to the campus, Baird said.
The campus master plan was designed to ensure that however the university prioritized “physical, bricks and mortar infrastructure,” that every dollar spent would be “crucially aligned” to help the campus achieve its four main goals in the strategic plan, said Stephen Coulston, a principal in the design firm’s Austin office.
University officials are exploring all avenues of funding from public-private partnerships to the more traditional routes, including grants and fundraising, Bowen, the university president, said.
Aerial photograph of the Arkansas Tech University campus in Russellville shows proposed changes under the school’s strategic plan, labeled as “priority projects” and “long-term aspirations.” The priorities include an improved main entrance; a new building for science, technology engineering and mathematics; a student recreation facility; and a performing arts center.
“We’ll be working very closely with our advancement office and alums and friends of the university moving forward,” she said. “We are in the early stages of investigating a [fundraising] campaign but we wanted to have this step done to make sure we captured the wishes of the campus.”
Print Headline: Campus plan in Russellville rethinks entry; Arkansas Tech wants to cut vehicle traffic, add buildings