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FairfaxEducationMason facilities plan sees academic core surrounded by nature

Mason facilities plan sees academic core surrounded by nature

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A core academic area surrounded by natural beauty. Less traffic congestion. More housing for students and staff. Additional retail outlets. And the demise of the original campus buildings that are near and dear to some alums’ heart but aren’t really up to current academic standards.

Those are all pieces of the puzzle as George Mason University continues work on a 25-to-50-year planning timeline for facilities at its Fairfax campus.

And with the planning-study phase now largely over, the effort turns to prioritizing – and paying for – that which has been proposed.

A final report outlining the development recommendation is expected to land on university leaders’ desks within a month. The task then turns to “how are we going to take the framework – and make the decisions we have to make?” said Carol Kissal, senior vice president for finance and administration at the university.

Mason’s top leaders are “ready to take the hand-off – taking the baton from the work that has been done,” Kissal said during an Oct. 7 online forum, the last in a series that has seen a consultant gather data and community input and shape them into a series of proposals.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” said Gregory Janks, the consultant who has led the planning effort.

His soon-to-be-released plan marks a framework that can support future decision-making, but “in many ways, the work has just begun,” Janks said.
“It’s really just the end of the beginning” of efforts, he said, borrowing (perhaps subconsciously) from Winston Churchill.

For those who have logged in to watch the series of planning meetings held mostly at three-month intervals, the proposals delivered Oct. 7 held no major surprises. They focus on concentrating academic buildings in a core area of three “quads” amid the sprawling Fairfax campus, then wrapping those with a “necklace” of ecological areas and amenities that could include an amphitheater and “contemplation center.”

Areas outside the core and nature zone would be used for housing, retail, athletic facilities and parking, and be reserved for future options.
The end goal, Janks has said for months, is to develop a “24/7 vitality” on a campus that for most of its history has been dominated by students and staff who commute in and commute out.

Perhaps the most emotional proposal in the package is to tear down the buildings that formed the nucleus of the campus of what started life as George Mason College in the 1960s. Some alumni have asked that they be retained, but their proposed demise has been telegraphed throughout the planning process.

“I will not say it has 100-percent unanimous support,” Janks said of the recommendation to raze the buildings, but pressed university officials to take the step.

While the buildings could be renovated, they have limited if any historic provenance and “they’re never going to be buildings that function well for modern academic uses,” Janks said, opining that the space could be better served by new facilities rising in their place.

(One other venerable part of the Fairfax campus whose planned elimination probably won’t engender as many tears is Patriot Circle, a clumsy traffic roundabout at the heart of the academic area that has flummoxed drivers for years. The roundabout “is doomed, and that’s a good thing,” Janks said.)

As Janks moves on to his next planning gig, Mason leaders will be left to find ways to fund some or all of the wish list embodied in the upcoming report. That effort falls in the lap of Tobi Walsh, who was hired as assistant vice president of capital strategy and planning to lead the effort.

At the Oct. 7 forum, Walsh sounded confident without being cocky.

“I do believe we are set up to start implementing this,” she said.

Despite the planning phase being completed, there probably will be a number of twists and turns on the horizon, Kissal acknowledged.

“Some of these things have not been set in stone,” she said.

Even so, coming this far in the process is building enthusiasm for the next steps, said university rector Jimmy Hazel.

“Everyone at the university is looking forward to it,” he said.

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