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IUP ditches 'dungeon' dorms amid a 'Residential Revival'

John Conti
| Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011

The first question just about everyone asks on hearing that Indiana University of Pennsylvania has torn down its old dormitories and replaced them with brand-new ones, is "How much did this cost the taxpayers?"

And the quick answer you get from folks like Michelle Fryling, the university spokeswoman, and Tom Borellis, the administrator who managed the project, is "next to nothing."

The university has, indeed, scraped off 11 dormitories that dated from the 1950s and '60s and replaced them -- at a cost of $244 million in just the last five years -- with a beautifully arrayed collection of eight new dorms.

In fact, the university has created a whole new southern end to its campus with sophisticated modern buildings, courtyards and quadrangles that would make any college proud.

IUP calls its project its "Residential Revival" and believes it is the largest such student housing-replacement project of its kind in the country.

And it was all done at the state-owned university with funds raised from private investors using an innovative financing technique pioneered in our region by

California University of Pennsylvania -- another state university that, like IUP, has been on a dormitory-building binge of its own.

Just exactly what is going on here?

Well, just to back up a bit, both colleges are part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. They were originally known as "state teachers colleges." But they began to grow rapidly in the '60s as their state-owned status made them the low-cost route to higher education. Current enrollment at IUP exceeds 15,000, with about 4,200 living on campus.

Lots of dormitories were thrown up quickly in the big growth years, and they were generally uninspired brick buildings with cement-block interior walls and drab linoleum floors. Scant attention was paid to creating a visually coherent campus.

The low point for IUP came when its dorms made the Princeton Review's list of colleges with "Dorms Like Dungeons."

But then came competition, and what the school has described as "a facilities arms race" by colleges intent on attracting good students.

"We found parents and students both rejecting IUP simply because of the quality of the dorms," Borellis says.

What sets IUP apart from a lot of other colleges in the country, though, is not just the size of its program, but the quality and coherence of its overall campus planning.

The new dormitories, for example are all 3 to 4 stories tall and rendered in the prevailing "postmodern" style with similar materials, colors, shapes and rooflines. They were designed by WTW Architects, a Pittsburgh firm, and create a delightful succession of courtyards and quadrangles that unfold in front of you as you walk among them -- an experience that's largely become lost in campus planning since the '60s.

While Carnegie-Mellon University did an excellent job of rebuilding important parts of its campus in a consistent and organized style in recent years, such examples are rare. Most colleges expand one building at a time and usually in miscellaneous fashion, creating hodgepodges of styles and spaces.

The residence halls at IUP come close to matching in their spatial effect, the storied procession of 70-to-100-year-old "Collegiate Gothic" residential quadrangles that you will find on the campus at Princeton University.

The new physical landscape at IUP, Fryling says, "has changed the emotional landscape of the campus."

The man influencing all this quality is Borellis -- a retired landscape architect persuaded by IUP to come out of retirement to manage the expansion. Borellis was president of Pittsburgh's GWSM, Inc., a nationally known landscape architecture firm. He has been fully involved in developing a long-range master plan for the IUP campus, and is concerned now with what the campus might look like in 20 years. One objective is to eliminate conflicts between vehicles and people, and the university is envisioning broad pedestrian promenades linking the campus without interruption.

So, how did all this student housing get funded• It's complicated, but in brief, with state funds always hard to come by, IUP, California of Pennsylvania and Slippery Rock University, among other state schools, formed partnerships with private nonprofit foundations -- in IUP's case with the existing Foundation for IUP.

The foundation, in turn, hired professional managers to enlist private investors and banks to finance construction. The university leased the land to the foundation, the foundation borrowed the money and built the dorms, and the lenders are being paid back by the foundation from room rents that the students and their families pay. The university manages and maintains the buildings and will take ownership from the foundation after the 35-year mortgages are paid off.

Students return to campus over the next week, with classes starting Aug. 29.

And "dorms as dungeons" are no more.

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