Walk through the sprawling new student union at San Jose State University, and you would be forgiven for thinking you had just stepped into an upscale mall food court. Mongolian barbecue? Check. Healthy salad place? Got that. Comfy lounge chairs and acres of café tables? Grab a seat.
The student union — both a new building and rehab of the decades-old wing — is part of a massive building boom that is transforming the state’s oldest public university. Roughly $300 million in construction is currently underway or coming online, including a new health center, residential towers, landscape improvements and academic-building renovations. And that’s just for starters: A total of $1.4 billion in capital improvements is on tap, as the 32,000-student school seeks to upgrade its image and lure more students and top faculty.
“There’s a lot of research and data that shows many students get attracted to a campus based on the condition of facilities, and they stay based on those conditions,” said SJSU President Mohammad Qayoumi. “When you look at a campus like ours in the middle of Silicon Valley, I really saw the need to upgrade the facilities and begin to consider putting in place a more systematic plan for them.”
SJSU is not alone. Intelligence in Education, which tracks construction, says residence-hall building alone is up 40 percent from a year ago, with colleges pumping $2 billion into dorms between last year and this year.
At San Jose State, officials have greenlighted the huge spend after years of relatively little investment in facilities. The last big project was King Library, which opened in 2003. Most of the projects are being paid for upfront by bonds and will be repaid over time through student fees and rent.
“There’s a lot that hasn’t been touched in some time, and there’s a huge backlog in demand,” said Christopher Brown, associate vice president for facilities development and operations.
Construction isn’t without risks. In 2012, San Jose State filed a legal claim against the architect and general contractor on Campus Village 1, a massive, 2,279-bed complex built in 2005. It sought $29 million in damages relating to plumbing repair and replacement costs because of leaks. But Qayoumi says such incidents shouldn’t deter spending on big projects.
“There will always be risks,” he said. “That kind of litigation can happen with any major construction project.”
On a recent tour a few days before classes resumed in August, the campus was a buzzing with activity. Hard hats, construction fencing and heavy equipment were everywhere.
Inside the massive Spartan Complex, workers were racing to complete a punch list on a $62 million renovation before students were scheduled to start flooding into the building. As part of the project, the attached Yoshihiro Uchida Hall saw its stately edifice encased in a new glass entrance that houses new facilities and adds a rooftop garden and patio. Nearby, recently installed palm trees still had their fronds tied up, part of a landscaping upgrade meant to add grandeur to Paseo de Cesar Chavez.
“One of the biggest challenges is we’re right in the heart of campus,” said Tony Matulich, senior project manager for Blach Construction, which is the general contractor on the $34 million health center, slated for completion by spring 2015. “But we have good communication with the campus. We keep them up to date on these big operations.”
A major focus area is housing, with $552 million in pipelined projects. Sundt Construction Inc. just started work on the $126 million Campus Village Phase 2, which will add 850 beds in a 10-story tower at the southeast end of campus. Plans call for more than 2,000 beds to be built after that in a $426 million third and fourth phase.
The goal is to modernize the housing stock and add new supply, sating some of the demand that has led to a 600-student waitlist for existing units. At the same time, officials expect more dorms will lead to a better academic experience.
“Especially for the first-year experience, staying on campus has a major impact on student success,” Qayoumi said.
Planners are putting all of that housing in the same part of campus to create a critical community mass. A side benefit may be added life to the surrounding area, officials said.
“When we have all these students who are staying at residence halls, we’re going to see more and more amenities downtown,” Qayoumi said. “I think their dollars will be spent in downtown area.”
Officials are sensitive to criticism that the facilities spending comes after years of budget cuts that have resulted in slashed course offerings. Qayoumi, however, notes that facilities budgets are separate from operating funds. And he notes that the school doesn’t want to overbuild, either.
“The balance is, you want to build facilities that can withstand the use of time,” he said. “You want to build in a flexibility so you can renovate it in 20 years for new uses that you can’t even imagine today, and it will still be relevant.”