While much of the University of Wyoming’s focus is on its ability to open in the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the institution’s leadership is also looking ahead to a time when campus is not only open, but radically transformed.
A 20-year master plan approved by the Board of Trustees during its meeting Thursday lays out the structure of that transformation, which would require new construction and renovations of existing buildings and plazas.
“It’s really intended to help UW understand the condition of existing facilities, current and projected space needs, campus mobility, landscaping and infrastructure,” campus architect Matt Newman told the board. “All to help guide the physical development of the campus.”
Broadly, the plan seeks to make campus more cohesive, connecting various “precincts” — such as the research precinct to the north and athletic and cultural precincts to the east — while improving the livability, design or flow of those areas. The master plan was developed by architecture firm Sasaki, which has been working on it since January 2019.
“At the heart of this, this was really about ensuring academic success and realizing the university’s strategic priorities,” said Caitlyn Clauson, a principal planner with Sasaki. “It’s about creating a vibrant campus life experience to support student success, celebrating Wyoming culture and identity through the physical environment, and continuing to support a competitive intercollegiate athletics program.”
The plan calls for $120 million for infrastructure improvements spread out over the next 20 years. That money would go to increasing shared social spaces and natural lighting in some of UW’s more austere buildings and extending the bike-friendly qualities of campus beyond the core area. The master plan also makes the argument for adding a residence hall wing to Knight Hall, and completely renovating Ross Hall into dorms, which was the building’s original, historic function.
The board’s approval of the master plan does not commit UW to any of its suggestions. Major construction, demolition, or renovation projects will still require a vote by the trustees. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact on Wyoming, UW might have to scale back or slow down some of its dream projects.
“For example, with Ross Hall and Knight Hall — those are renovations we’ve talked about, but we haven’t pulled the trigger on,” Vice Chairman John McKinley said. “And there are a variety of great potential projects we could do, but in light of the current state’s revenue picture — which is challenging at best — the availability of funds to do projects over the next two to three years are going to be sparse.”
The master plan is holistic, imagining a cascade of changes to the current state of affairs. For instance, once UW wraps up construction on the Science Initiative Building, it will free up space in the Physical Sciences Building. According to the master plan, the Physical Sciences Building could then be used for more Arts and Sciences programs. This, in turn, would free up Ross Hall, which could then be renovated into dorms.
“I’m really glad to see it’s mostly renovation,” acting UW President Neil Theobald said. “Other than the housing, it’s mostly renovation of what we already have. It’s taking these iconic buildings that are just north of (Old Main) and bringing them back in and making them much more useful.”
The big picture plan encompasses other long-standing efforts for campus development, such as the ever-changing plans for new student housing, ongoing construction in the research precinct, and parking and utility updates.
But the master plan also throws down some of its own original suggestions, such as refurbishing and revitalizing historic buildings like those around the main campus green.
“The Agriculture Building today — while very elegant — is a highly efficient building, meaning there isn’t a lot of additional wiggle room throughout the building,” Clauson said. “There’s limited access to light, especially in some of the interior spaces.”
That could be alleviated by adding in more large, open social or study areas. Similar improvements for the center of campus were graphically illustrated by Sasaki. Those designs feature green space in place of the current Coe Library parking lot. This would serve to extend the university’s large green space between Fraternity and Sorority Rows.
“This open space really can work in tandem with ideas to reduce traffic on 15th Street,” said Ian Scherling, a Sasaki landscape architect. “And I think our goal within the landscape approach here is to try to make 15th Street disappear into the open space so that that open space can unify campus.”
Connecting the sometimes disparate parts of campus is not a new idea — and 15th Street usually finds itself in the middle of that discussion, given its placement in the middle of campus.
In 2017, the State Legislature ordered UW to look at closing or modifying the stretch of 15th Street that bisects campus. That led to heated debates both on and off campus and almost unanimous disapproval from the residents of Laramie, who cherish 15th Street as one of the city’s main north-south roads.
Apart from the uphill battle necessary to modify 15th Street, the addition of that green space introduces another problem: Parking. Already limited on campus, the parking crisis on campus would be exacerbated by some projects referenced in the master plan. Scherling said any new construction should take this into consideration.
“The master plan introduces two parking garages — the Bradley garage off of Bradley and 15th, and the Ivinson Garage, between Ivinson and Grand,” he said. “The idea for those two new garages is to recommend that they be right-sized to accommodate any displaced parking from the core area of campus.”
No matter how the board implements — or doesn’t implement — elements of the new 20-year master plan, Faculty Senate Chair Ken Chestek said it was more important now than ever.
Many have argued that the future of higher education is online, maybe even exclusively so.
“I don’t think that vision of the future is going to happen,” Chestek said. “I think what we’ve learned over the last two months is that students and faculty both really, really value the physical connection on campus.”