February 27, 2009

University architect envisions Ellis Avenue as enhanced campus gateway

Speaking to a full house in Ida Noyes Tuesday, Associate Vice President for Facilities Services and University Architect Steve Wiesenthal gave community members a taste of what’s to come in the school’s ongoing expansion, laying out a framework for the University’s physical development as it moves through the largest physical growth in its history.

Wiesenthal began by debunking the notion that the financial crisis had reduced University planning. “It feels like we’re busier than if the economy hadn’t done what it’s doing,” he said.

Containing more of a general vision than specific commitments, much of Wiesenthal’s plan focused on integrating what he called the inward nature of the quadrangles and main campus facilities with the exterior neighborhood environment. To this end, Wiesenthal repeatedly stressed the importance of developing the Midway and South Ellis Avenue into welcoming locations rather than intra-campus barriers.

“Ellis Avenue should become our main street,” Wiesenthal said. He referred to South Ellis Avenue as an inadequate gateway into one of the world’s great universities, and suggested that the street should serve as a “meeting ground rather than a dividing line” between the hospital and science facilities on one side and the liberal arts divisions on the other. Wiesenthal brought up the possibility of a freestanding cafe in the plaza across from the administration building that could bring more foot traffic and activity to the street.

Wiesenthal saw a similar problem with the Midway. “The Midway feels like a barrier,” he said. “How can we embrace the Midway?” Wiesenthal said he expects the new dorm, dining hall, and arts center south of the Midway to help make the park more of a bustling student lawn, and less of an obstacle to commuters.

Building on his plan to make the University’s outdoor spaces more appealing, Wiesenthal said that vehicle traffic has an undue prominence on the quad. He envisioned a more pedestrian-friendly East 58th Street that would stretch from the main quad’s traffic circle to the Booth School of Business, allowing the street to serve as open plaza rather than a traditional road. “We could extend the feel of the quadrangle to the east,” he said.

Referencing the U of C’s traditional architecture, Wiesenthal noted that he is always considering whether to continue the neo-Gothic style and suggested that those choices will depend on the location of construction sites.

Wiesenthal also provided updates on several ongoing construction projects, including the new dorm and the Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts. According to Wiesenthal, the dorm is still on schedule to open in the fall, while the arts center has passed the schematic design stage and is on track to begin construction next winter. It is slated to open before the end of 2011.

In a question-and-answer session, audience members raised concerns about how University projects will impact parking, campus safety, and commercial development.

Asked how his department is dealing with the proposed Olympic stadium in Washington Park, Wiesenthal said, “This has been in the backs and fronts of our minds.” He added that the likely construction price increase that would accompany such development has been one of the University’s concerns.