Coming spring 2018: the Community Center

Rendering of the community center currently under construction.

By Keely Savoie

A year from now, the building that students, faculty and staff have known as the Blanchard Campus Center —  “Blanch” — will open as a vastly expanded community center.

“Our goal in building a community center with dining is to create a space where work, study, student leadership activities, socializing and dining coalesce,” said Acting President Sonya Stephens. “We envision this as a space of endeavor, of exchange, of intellectual and social excitement. It’s where the casual meets the programmatic. Here students, faculty and staff can come together. This is where organic community growth and organized community building can occur simultaneously.”

To be nearly double the size of the current building, the community center that students have dubbed “Super Blanch” is more than just an expansion of the space: It is an expansion of the entire concept of community. The new building will consolidate campus dining and become the social hub of the College, incorporating crucial sustainability measures that will dramatically improve energy efficiency and environmental practices on campus.

“The community center will be a dynamic new space that will offer students, staff and faculty new opportunities to dine, connect and socialize on campus,”  said Shannon Gurek, vice president for finance and administration and treasurer. “It will overhaul how we provide services in a way that, because of the flexibility of the design, ensures that we are mindful of not only our current students' needs and the environment but those of future generations as well.”

The $50 million construction of the community center is in no small part thanks to the unprecedented generosity of Mount Holyoke’s alumnae and friends. In particular, an anonymous alumna pledged an outright gift of $5 million and a dollar-for-dollar matching contribution that brought, as of December 31, 2016, an additional $21 million to the College in support of this transformational project.

The heartbeat of the campus

The flexible space of the new community center will be more than a place for planned events and programs.

The third floor of Blanchard, which currently houses student groups in separate offices, will become the Weissman Student Commons, which was established by Harriet L. Weissman ’58 and her husband, Paul M. Weissman. The reconfigured space will give student leaders a centralized location to foster collaborations among groups and provide access to the tools and technologies they need to manage their organizations.

The second floor will house a new Unity Center and student art gallery. The Unity Center space will host small and mid-sized groups for discussions and programs on topics related to culture, diversity, inclusion, and other areas critical to student leadership and identity development. The centrally-located area will draw a wide range of students to the community center, integrating those groups with cultural houses or identity spaces that are located on the outer edges of campus.

The Division of Student Life will also join the second floor, moving into the space currently occupied by the bookstore. The student life office includes the dean of students, residential life staff, student involvement, diversity programming, orientation programming and religious life staff.

“We hope that moving student life into the community center will make it easier for students to connect with us and will increase our collaborations,” said Marcella Runell Hall, vice president for student life and dean of students. “We are really hoping this will be a hub for students. It will be Orientation, diversity, student programs, residential life and spiritual life — all in one place.”

The community center, designed to facilitate spontaneous meetings and serendipitous encounters, will become what Board of Trustees Chair Barbara Baumann ’77 has called the “heartbeat” of the campus. A pub and coffee bar will provide an informal gathering place for College community members and their families to eat, socialize, relax, grab a quiet coffee or raise a glass with friends and colleagues.

The idea of dedicated space to encourage leadership and community building is of special importance on college campuses where many physical buildings are single-purpose, a layout that serves more to segregate than to aggregate.

Assuring the best student experience is the major focus of student life, Hall said. “This incredible new space will provide tremendous opportunities to build community for students, faculty and staff alike.”

Environmental improvements

The community center is being constructed to LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) silver standards, meaning it will use less water, require less energy and resources, and cost less to operate than similar structures not built to the standard. Some highlights:

  • In-line compressors on the roof of the building will dynamically deliver the exact amount of cooling energy that refrigerators require throughout the day, gearing up or down to meet the demand.

  • Solar panels will generate electricity to heat hot water.

  • A food-waste dehydrator will process compost in 24 hours, enabling the compost product to be used almost immediately on campus and reducing the time, steps and energy between food waste production and reuse.

  • Some stoves will have magnetic induction burners, which are more efficient and safer than thermal cooktops. Thermal cooktops will be the most energy-efficient possible models.

  • Stove hoods will be demand-sensitive, ramping up or down as sensors determine the need. To further increase the efficiency and effectiveness of stove hoods, air curtains will seal smoke and steam in rather than letting them seep into the surrounding area.

  • A rain garden will capture water from the roof and cycle it back into the adjacent landscaping.

  • Reusable containers for grab-and-go diners will reduce the amount of extra waste associated with takeout.

  • A system to capture oil used in cooking for reuse as biofuel.

Expanded community dining opportunities

One of the major changes to dining services will be the increased variety of foods offered. Different stations will serve up a multitude of choices to meet the needs and preferences of the College's diverse community. The unprecedented variety of options will include international dishes, American comfort food, vegetarian and vegan specialties, allergen-free stations and kosher and halal food.

Another change: meal plans will be restructured so that students will have unlimited swipes — meaning they will no longer have to plan their meals and socializing around their cards. That means more time, swipes and space for late-night noshing and snack-fueled studying, said Dale Hennessey, director of dining services.

“What we can do with the expanded and consolidated dining center is endless and gives us many opportunities to try a multitude of options,” Hennessey said. “For example, we could acknowledge a special occasion with a dessert extravaganza, thanks to the increased flexibility in hours, our staffing model and the specific equipment at our various stations.”

The new dining commons marks a shift away from dining in the five residences that retained kitchens and dining rooms. Dining services will move to providing meals at the new single location, where the food preparation will be done in several distinct areas with themed food options and seating arrangements designed to give diners a choice of environments to eat in.

The College is considering a number of possibilities for the existing residential dining areas, including  a new home for the Makerspace, additional living-learning communities, wellness activity and instructional spaces, and unstructured community spaces.

The addition to the community center is scheduled to open in January 2018 and the final renovations to Blanchard are expected to be complete in April 2018.

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