University building boom continues

Cramped campus looks to expand to waterfront, make room for more students

Dawson Construction employees work on the new 120,000-square-foot Academic Instruction Center at Western Washington University. The $55 million building will add 700 classroom seats to campus.

Western Washington University is nearly bursting at the seams.

The university received a record-breaking number of student applications for the 2007-2008 school year. But enrollment at Western is hitting its upper limit, and the university can barely keep up despite a slew of new construction.

While the university’s strategic plan calls for a cap of full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment of 12,500 by 2013, the university has nearly reached that limit already with 11,754 FTE students in 2005-2006. The budget passed this spring by the Washington state Legislature funds 446 enrollment slots during the next two years, but most of the students filling those slots are already on campus.

Even though the university is overflowing with students, Western’s campus is the smallest of Washington’s universities and is limited geographically in its ability to expand. The recently approved 2007-2009 capital budget for the university rings in at $47.6 million — the third largest in Western’s history — and much of that budget is dedicated to modernizing existing facilities to maximize space.

Western Communications Director Paul Cocke said the details of the 2007-2009 capital budget are still being worked out, but include:

• $11 million to support academic facility modernization projects, such as a new laboratory in the Chemistry Building

• $7 million in supplemental funding for the Academic Instructional Center (AIC) construction

• $5.5 million for design of the Miller Hall renovation

• $400,000 in pre-design funding for Carver Gym

More than half of the previous 2005-2007 capital budget, which was the largest in Western’s history, went towards the construction of the AIC, a 120,000-square-foot complex with 700 classroom seats. In addition to the AIC, south campus has seen the addition of two new buildings the past five years. Much of that development has been a boon to local construction companies.

“A high percentage of our projects include local contractors,” said Ed Simpson, Western’s planning manager for facilities management.

Seven major Bellingham construction companies are working on campus projects this summer, and Simpson said most also have local subcontractors. The summer projects include:

• Dawson Construction of Bellingham, AIC construction, $45,072,720, awarded Feb. 1, 2007; Higginson Hall renovation, $6,123,000, awarded Feb. 3, 2006

• Tiger Construction Ltd of Everson, Lincoln Creek restoration, $405,000, awarded March 22, 2007; Environmental Studies roofing, $889,000, awarded April 27, 2007

• RAM Construction of Bellingham, Humanities renovation, $134,000, awarded April 10, 2007; Arnzten Hall generator upgrade, $191,900, awarded March 28, 2007; classroom mediation in Miller Hall, Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Building, Humanities and Haggard Hall, $308,000, awarded March 29, 2007

• CLK Construction LLC of Bellingham, Fraser Hall renovation, $102,200, awarded May 24, 2007

• Boss Construction Inc. of Bellingham, Wilson Library renovation on third and forth floors $420,000, awarded March 15, 2007

• Diamond B Constructors of Bellingham, Steam Plant upgrade, $157,000, awarded May 11, 2007

• Ebenal General Inc. of Bellingham, Edens North flooring replacement, $126,600, awarded April 18, 2007; Ridgeway Beta roof replacement, $345,000, awarded May 1, 2007

• Mark Construction of Edmonds, Nash Hall exterior brick renovation and bathroom improvements, $323,000, awarded May 9, 2007

The addition of new buildings, along with the AIC, has paved the way for modernization of existing facilities. Once the psychology and communications disorders departments move into the AIC next summer, Miller and Parks halls will undergo extensive remodeling, Simpson said.

Ed Simpson, Western’s planning manager for facilities management, stands in the Communications Facility, one of the university’s newest additions to campus, and overlooks construction on the new 120,000-square-foot Academic Instruction Center.


Busy construction industry slows projects

One possible reason for Western’s facilities not being able to keep up with enrollment is the burgeoning construction industry. Simpson said construction nationally has been steadily growing at 3 percent to 4 percent each year, but in the Pacific Northwest, demand for construction has jumped by 10 percent to 12 percent each year.

The demand escalated costs for the AIC. Construction was slated to begin in July 2006, but the sole bid for the project was too high, and construction was delayed for seven months. The second round of bidding yielded the same result, but Western’s board of trustees voted to continue with construction to avoid delay of other projects.

The pressure is on for Western to maintain enrollment growth beyond its current capacity. The Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB) has advised Washington public colleges and universities to accommodate about 16,000 new FTEs by the 2010-2011 school year to maintain the current rate of college attendance in Washington.

Karen Copetas, Western’s director of admissions and enrollment planning, said regardless of the number of students the HECB anticipates, there always is pressure on Western to accommodate additional students. She said Western has a reputation for academic quality, but for years, space constraints have forced the university to deny access to a large number of students.

“Why wouldn’t the state want that quality to be available to more students?” she asked.


Finding more room off campus

But there will be little new construction at Western’s current campus. Because Western is nestled between existing neighborhoods and the Sehome Arboretum, the university’s campus cannot grow much beyond current planned construction without the addition of satellite campuses.

A new residence hall is slated to be completed in 2010 near Buchannan Towers on Western’s south end. Funding for the project is not included in the capital budget, and Copetas said construction would most likely be paid through the sale of 20- to 30-year bonds and using local funds to repay the debt.

One satellite campus is already in the works. The operating budget for 2007-2009 slates $1 million for planning and development of Western’s presence on Bellingham’s waterfront. Western’s Huxley College of the Environment could possibly move to the new facilities, expanding the capabilities of the current campus.

But Hart Hodges, associate professor of economics and director for the center for economic and business research, said some citizens have expressed concerns about the presence of a non-revenue-generating tenant taking up prime waterfront real estate.

“If we’re willing to bus people to the waterfront, they’re on the bus,” Hodges said. “It doesn’t have to be to the waterfront.”

But Hodges said a Western waterfront presence could anchor the community in more economic ways than tax revenue. The permanent fixture of Western on the waterfront could attract other long-term tenants.

Hodges said Western’s growth has been important for the local economy in more ways than construction. The capacity to educate more students brings value in itself to the local economy.

“Construction and utility spending does not get at the real value of the university,” Hodges said.

And more students mean more professors and staff, which means more economic activity in town.

“That activity didn’t slow with the recession in 2001 and doesn’t change with fluctuations in exchange rates,” he said. “It gives a nice base for other parts of the economy.”

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