Friday, October 24, 2008

Westmont breaks ground on master plan


After 32 years of dreaming, golden-tipped shovels sunk into the dirt at Westmont College yesterday, where school officials broke ground on two new buildings as part of the campus master plan.
The groundbreaking marks a new era for the school, which despite crowded classrooms and sparse office space that often forced students to sit on the floor, hasn’t constructed a new building in 24 years.

“I never didn’t think it would happen, I just didn’t know when,” said Ron Cronk, the school’s former vice president for administration and finance, who spent 14 years working on getting the project underway. “It feels wonderful to finally be at this point.”
School officials broke ground on the Adams Center for the Visual Arts, a nearly 23,000-square-foot building, and the David K. Winter Hall for Science and Mathematics, a 43,000-square-foot structure.
Winter, who spent much of his life dreaming of the kind of campus Westmont needed to properly educate its students, said he started the process in 1976, his first year at the helm of the school.
During that year, Winter gained approval from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to expand the school’s student cap from 800 to 1,200.
He said the facilities were fine for 800 students, but quickly became insufficient. Small building projects occurred here and there, but the large-scale construction that Winter felt needed to happen was put on the backburner for what turned out to be decades.
Arts faculty member John Carlander, who came to Westmont in 1980, said he was surprised then when he realized the extent of the school’s arts program was one classroom.
Things have improved since then, but he said the new arts center will go a long way to improving the program and making it available to more students.
“We’ve outgrown the arts center we’re in,” he said. “There’s no elbow room left. There’s no room at all.”
Russell Howell, a math professor, said he was asked to host an academic conference in 1989, and prior to agreeing to do so, was told by school officials that a new academics center would be built.
That didn’t happen, but Howell said the story shows Westmont’s quest to have new facilities is not just to have them, but for the purpose of education. As such, he said the costs are not strictly financial.
Howell said Winter used to say, “We’re playing over our head,” meaning the quality of the faculty and students far outweighed the mortar and brick that was the school.
“Now, even with these new buildings,” Howell said. I hope “we still play over our heads.”
As the school approached the finish line nearly 10 years ago, and had a project ready to present to county officials, they were hampered by protests from planners and the community.
Ultimately, the school redesigned the master plan, making buildings more environmentally friendly and small. Twelve appearances before the Montecito Planning Commission and $3 million spent on redesigns later, the plan was approved.
But a community group called Citizens Concerned Over Westmont Expansion appealed the project to the Board of Supervisors, who rejected the appeal and unanimously approved the school’s plan.
A legal challenge filed by the group in Superior Court also failed, and on Wednesday, the State Court of Appeals heard legal arguments from both sides.
The brunt of the group’s challenge, according to Westmont Media Relations Manager Scott Craig, deals with how the environmental impact report was conducted.
Because of pending litigation, Craig said bulldozers wouldn’t begin wide-scale construction until the end of November, after the court of appeals rules.
Westmont President Gayle Beebe said he’s confident the legal issues will be resolved in the school’s favor.
He said the symbolic groundbreaking yesterday was held to correspond with the school’s Board of Regents October meeting.
“We’re hoping to prevail,” he said. “So far we’ve just been delighted. We need this space.”
The first phase of construction consists of 166,000 square feet of new buildings, which aside from the two that the school broke ground on yesterday, includes a new residence hall and chapel.
A five-year lull will occur in between each phase of construction, which when completed, will add 345,837 square feet to the campus.
Though the process was long and costly, Cronk said he feels it worked and as a result of the community’s criticism, Westmont has a better plan.
“It’s a wonderful plan,” he said. “It’s not just about building buildings. This is about the student experience and preparing students to better serve the society of the future.”

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