Under Construction: Dean Downey Explains the Mess

Photo by Ellli McGuire

You may have heard the roaring sounds of construction or seen a few people here and there with hard hats on.

Due to the constraints of a bad economy and constantly rising construction costs, Queens has decided to begin more than $70 million of building on 25 acres all at once.

Amid the mountains of dirt, a new science center and health building, a new parking garage, a new residence hall, and a new wellness and recreation student center are being built.

The accelerated timetable was made possible by a flurry of fundraising last year, completing a five-year strategic plan focused on improving facilities, increasing enrollment and continuing steady growth. The next strategic plan, which begins in 2012 and ends in 2017, will focus on academic quality, including increased scholarships.

The rapid-fire building caught some students by surprise when they returned to campus this fall to find a campus construction zone. .

The Chronicle invited Dean of Students John Downey to describe the reasons behind all the construction, what it means to students and what’s ahead. Below are his comments and answers to staff members’ questions on the building boom and other topics, edited for brevity:

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I want to talk about the mountains of dirt all around campus, what happened since students left and why it is happening now. Lots of college campuses wait until students leave and then they do something dramatic. It doesn’t behoove anyone to do so because the students will come back and be upset, so I want to explain what exactly happened here.

Let me begin by saying all of the mountains of dirt and construction is a little more than $70 million of construction on 25 acres. That’s a lot of work in two years, most of which will be done in one year.

Forty million dollars of that $70 million was philanthropy. We raised $40 million just for these jobs, $30 million is in bonds which will be paid over time. Over the past five years, we’ve had a strategic plan all about growth, facilities and enrollment. We knew our facilities needed a lot of work. The previous five-year plan was also about growth and facilities. When I started eight years ago, there was only one residence hall that had Internet and that was Wireman. Nothing had been upgraded in years. We spent millions of dollars renovating Barnhardt, Albright, Belk and Hayes. Over the last five years, we’ve raised about $110 million.

There’s a momentum that’s happening here. Has anyone read the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins? You should read that book! He has an idea about how an organization goes from being good to being great. He has this concept of a flywheel. If you know about old planes, you spin that thing and eventually it goes on its own. We’re right about there.

We had a Board of Trustees meeting last January. We still needed $14 million of fundraising to start the remaining projects. We already raised money for the science building, thanks to the Rogers family and Duke Energy. While we were doing that project, we could help ourselves by doing the other project at the same time. Construction costs were constantly rising. And we knew that in addition to the fundraising that we’d have to get some bonds, and the bond price continues to rise. So we knew were under some pressure. The trustees said “go out and raise $14 million.” By May, we had raised most of that. It was just amazing.

We didn’t expect to begin the Levine Center for Wellness and Recreation until at least December/January, maybe not until the following year. We knew that the science building was going to start as soon after graduation as possible. The trustees, who are very smart about business and money, said “if you don’t do this (Levine Center, parking garage and residence hall) now, it will cost you more later.” Several of the vice presidents and deans all looked at each other and thought, “the students are going to kill us.” The first thing that had to happen was putting several million dollars worth of infrastructure under the ground, and guess where that “under the ground” was? Greek row.

The Levine Center, parking garage, residence hall and science and health building are going to be transformational for Queens. The part that will be done for next fall will be the 500-car parking garage – in addition to the 300-car parking garage we currently have. There is only one thing that we all have in common at Queens – complaints about parking. I won’t say that all our parking problems will be solved forever, but it will take us a long way. On top of that parking garage we’ll have a residence hall. That residence hall will not be open for the Fall, but probably by the Spring. It will be a combination of suites and apartments.

We are in so fast of a phase that we’re in a “design and build” – the last thing that any architect, engineer or construction company ever wants to do is design as you’re building. We’re knocking things down right now and still talking about what exactly is going to be in there. We’ll be involving students in those discussions, of course, but we’re moving very fast.

The Levine center, which was a $7.5 million gift from the Levine Foundation, will be three levels of recreation, athletic exercise, student union, food, everything that you could imagine. One of the amazing features is three gymnasiums in one. A wall comes down to capture the inner one where basketball, volleyball and practice will be going on, while intramurals are going on around it. There will be a walking track all around it. Those walls of course will go up when games happen and there will be a 2,000-seat arena for basketball, volleyball, graduations, everything. It’s really going to transform the campus in time for fall of 2013. If we hadn’t started this summer, it would have been 2014.

That’s why we moved at the pace we moved. I can assure you we had no vested interest in having basketball teams, Greeks and others wondering why you would have us leave, go home and not tell us that this is going to happen and have everybody come back and ask why you moved my season away, why would you do this? Really it happened the way I am describing it, but yet I understand the frustration. We’ve been telling athletes and Greeks for years that eventually this is going to come down. Eventually this will be moved. All the sudden it happens, so it had to be somewhat shocking.

Q&A with Chronicle staff:
Josiah McGinnis: How will Queens maintain the green space with all the construction?
Dean Downey: In between Wellsley and where Wireman and where Greek row was will be green space. Have you seen the Lion’s Den? We’ve got tens of thousands of dollars invested into the Lion’s Den patio and it’s not even mentioned. When we’re building $70 million worth, that seems insignificant.Autumn Cutter: Do you ever see Queens starting a doctorate program?
Dean Downey: It isn’t likely, but it’s possible. We will add masters degree programs. We have first rights to the Federal Courthouse building in uptown Charlotte. It looks like it would be a great law school. We’ve talked about that, but we don’t know. We’re not in any big hurry but we could move some graduates programs out there. Do you know about the concept of the Queens corridor? From 5th street to North residence hall, the main campus, over to the sports complex, we’re going to continue to grow all along there. Doctorate programs put you in a different category. Once you move to a doctorate-degree-granting institution you’re competing with the Harvards, the Yales and so forth. Now all the sudden you go from being ranked 17th in a category to 40th. Nobody puts that in a brochure.Alex Stocking: When Queens needs to expand again, where will it go and what will happen to the trees?
Dean Downey: We’re going to knock down Stultz and Belk and build something right there. We have an arborist on retainer for the science and health building. It’s unbelievable how many trees we saved versus how many we cut down. The ones that we took down will be made into the floor, so we’re recycling it. The building will be LEED certified, the highest certification we can get. There is going to be a whole side of the wall that will be a greenhouse with solar panels.

Cameo Kizzie: Is the science building going to cover up the view of the chapel?
Dean Downey: They are planning to do something in between those locations. It’s supposed to be a merging of science and religion. On the Radcliffe side of the chapel, there be will be a typical Queens circle where you can pick up and drop off people off for your wedding day. There will be a huge million-dollar gathering space before you get into the chapel. The front shifts.

Elli McGuire: What kind of food will be served in the new eating venue at the Levine Center?
Dean Downey: It won’t be a cafeteria. It will be healthy foods like smoothies.

Aniyah Pendleton: As time goes on, how often will the old buildings have to be refurbished?
Dean Downey: Constantly. In Wireman, they’re saying by Thanksgiving, but certainly by spring they’ll be new carpet, new tables, new chairs.

Elizabeth Heffner: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Dean Downey: When students have to do something so bad that they have to leave the university is the hardest part of all. I actually don’t mind judicials. I get to ask them what in the world they were thinking when they were doing that.

Ashley Spinner: What do the campus improvements mean for Hayworth College?
Dean Downey: Hayworth College is definitely in our long-term plans. We want to provide an educational opportunity for students who for whatever reason didn’t go to college when they were 18, 19, 20. I always tell students who are screwing up to do me one favor: Tuesdays at 5:30 I want you to talk to the first person my age you see with a crazed look and a coffee in their hand and ask them their story. They’ll tell you for God sake, put the beer down and get to work. Otherwise you’re going to have a wife and kids, going to night school trying to get your degree someday.

William Boyd: Is Queens satisfied with Chartwells?
Dean Downey: As long as students are satisfied, it doesn’t matter what 100 staff eating lunch in the dining hall think. I care what the students think. I will say it all depends on your context. If you only know Chartwells, you only know Chartwells. They are head and shoulders above their competition. Chartwells had a vision. They saw the sports complex a year ago and other venues being built. They put millions of dollars of investment into Queens and that proved to work out for us overall. But just like any place, when you go to it every day, unless it’s Mom’s, you’re going to get tired of it. I think overall it’s been pretty good.

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Published by students of Queens University of Charlotte, 1900 Selwyn Avenue, Charlotte, N.C. 28274.