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College of the Future

GMU weighs present, future building plans.

A conference center at college? A senior living home on campus? If George Mason University's future building plans pan out, students and City of Fairfax residents may well see these and other buildings at the school's Fairfax location.

At a Jan. 24 meeting with the Fairfax City Council, George Mason president Dr. Alan Merten outlined a number of plans for the college, which begin with the Northeast Sector project already under construction.

Merten said that George Mason updated its master plan five years ago. Applications have about doubled in the past decade, from 5,400 freshman applications in 1996 to 10,300 in 2004. Enrollment has also risen, from about 1,900 freshman in 1996 to 2,500 freshman in 2004, and so student housing has become an urgent need.

"In the midst of [updating] the plan, what we found out was that there was space on the east campus of the Fairfax location to do development beyond what we had originally thought," said Merten. So the school undertook an endeavor to add student housing and activities space. The Northeast Sector Project is the largest project in George Mason history, with $75 billion worth of construction adding 480,000 square feet of space and housing for over 1,000 students.

George Mason senior and student government president Dale Van Wagner concurred with the need for student housing.

"I'm definitely jealous of the freshmen, they're the ones who get the benefit of the construction going on now," he said.

Freshman and sophomores usually live in campus dorms, said Van Wagner, but many upperclassmen move to townhouses and apartments away from the university and into neighborhoods such as Kings Park West to the south. Recently finished student housing for upperclassmen include Liberty Square and Patriot Hill, dorm apartments that Van Wagner said are highly prized by George Mason students.

"A lot of students need housing who want to live on campus," he said.

THE NORTHEAST Sector Project is a row of buildings that runs from the north end of Patriot Circle, parallel to the Fenwick Library, and ends at Student Union Building 2, said director of facilities planning Tom Calhoun. Dorm rooms make up the bulk of the project, with five of the project's seven planned buildings used primarily for housing. The two southernmost buildings will serve as a dining hall and fitness center, he said.

The dorms will be five or six levels each, but the first level will be non-residential and can be used for anything from barbershops to coffee shops to lounges and meeting rooms, said Merten.

"The idea is kind of like when you're in Old Town [Alexandria] or Georgetown, where ground floor access from the street is for public space and an apartment or room or suite or whatever is above that," said Calhoun.

A couple hundred of the dorm rooms will be available by fall semester 2007, said Calhoun. The rest will be available by 2008.

More dorm rooms would contribute greatly to the quality of campus life, said Van Wagner. It is difficult for students who live miles away to come back to campus after classes are over for evening programs and events, he said.

"Campus life will be better the more people you have living on campus," said Van Wagner. The athletic program will also benefit from the increased fitness space as well, he said.

"That is a big thing that the university needs to do and is planning on doing," he said.

But GMU has plans that stretch farther into the future, and that is where the conference and senior centers come in. The hotel and conference center, said Merten, is the response to a need in both the college and larger community. In fact, said City Manager Bob Sisson, the school and city have tried to build a conference center in the past, in a site off School Street.

The conference center will have a ballroom, with conference rooms that could be rented for corporate or city events. City councilmembers and Merten discussed the possibility of the school and city partnering with each other so the city would have events there.

"We need some really nice hotel space close to City Hall and even a conference facility," said Sisson. "Hopefully, the city will be able to make use of the facility, so I think it is a positive development."

The hotel will provide a space both for parents of new freshmen and for visiting lecturers, said Merten. Plans for the center are very preliminary, said Calhoun, but the conference center would likely be located close to the Patriot Center.

Plans for a senior center and retirement home are likewise far in the future, said Merten, but other universities have examined the possibility of building retirement homes on college campuses. At last week's meeting, city councilmembers agreed that one of the city’s pressing needs is accommodations for its older residents. Councilmember Scott Silverthorne said that integrating college students and elderly residents would be a positive step for both the school and community.

"It's very, very early in the discussion, but it makes so much sense that we've got to look at it," said Merten.