A modest renewal or a major re-imagination? Both possibilities remain in the cards for the Fairfax campus of George Mason University.
The university’s original and largest venue “provides opportunities we just don’t have at our other campuses,” said Gregory Janks, the consultant empowered by Mason leaders to oversee a community-wide study of facilities at their multiple campuses scattered across Northern Virginia.
“There is a scale and a mass of people,” Janks said at a June 10 community meeting where he further refined ideas but left it to others to determine how far Mason leaders are willing to go (and how much money they would have to spend) to lead the campus into the future.
Renovation and reimagination “aren’t exclusive to one another,” Janks said. But as perhaps might be a natural reaction, his enthusiasm level was somewhat tepid when discussing lower-impact renovation options, then jolted upward when looking at options that might turn portions of the campus into mixed-use residential/retail areas complementing core academic spaces.
Under one such proposed “reimagine” scenario, more than 350,000 square feet of existing facilities would be removed and more than 700,000 square feet of new construction added, although Janks said the plans would not come to fruition in “one year or five years or even 10 years,” saying any adopted plans would merely provide a “flexible framework” for the future.
“There are a million details to be worked out,” Janks said. “There are a lot of hoops to jump over.”
The enthusiasm for a go-for-broke approach to the future drew the approval of some who took part in the 90-minute forum.
“I am totally for the reimagined Fairfax campus,” said Bob Buchanan, who participated in the online meeting and said some of the proposals “will help change the image of Mason for the better.”
But not everyone was enchanted.
“The plans sound very insular,” noted one anonymous attendee, who urged greater collaboration with residents and governments that ring the campus.
“I live in this community, and GMU is a big footprint – and growing,” the attendee noted.
One of the victims of a major redevelopment effort might be the buildings that comprise the original “quad” where Mason began. While not seeing the buildings as having particular historical value, Janks acknowledged the “emotional connection” and “sentimental importance” of those facilities to alumni.
Not everyone, however, was a misty-eyed semtimentalist.
“While I have fond memories of the work and knowledge I gained there, the building [I worked in] was outdated and past its prime, even back then,” forum participant Terri Beirne said. “Let’s have a memorial service, take lots of pictures, then tear it down and move on toward building space more suited to the modern, world-class university that Mason now is.”
Although the proposals laid out June 10 suggested using existing parking lots for new facilities, some participants worried that a major growth spurt would impact existing bucolic portions of the campus.
“Losing habitat has been an unfortunate result of our growth and development as a campus,” participant Jen Fehsenfeld said. (She also acknowledged, however, that some of the components of the development plan “sound amazing.”)
Tina Worden, a 1989 Mason graduate whose youngest child is about to enter the institution in the fall, wanted to see more public art, such as murals, to “bring in more personality.”
“The campus lacks a lot of character because of the lack of art on the outside,” Worden said.
The Fairfax campus is home to most of the university’s undergraduate programs and the vast majority of its more than 35,000 students. More than 6.4 million square feet of academic and administrative space can be found on the campus, more than four times the amount at the Arlington and Prince William (“Sci/Tech”) campuses.
Among those also on hand at the forum was James W. “Jimmy” Hazel, rector of the Mason board of visitors. It will be up to Hazel and the others in leadership to ratify a growth plan – and find ways to fund and implement it.
Hazel did make one point during brief remarks.
“We need to plan an alumni office/hall,” he said of future facilities. “It needs to be in a prominent place. We’re in the hundreds of thousands [of graduates] and there’s going to be more.”
One of those alumni – 1974 graduate Mark Monson – praised inclusion of the likes of him in the planning effort.
“The university has been exceptionally welcoming to alumni participation in this process,” he said. “We are full participants.”
(Several dedicated facilities-development sessions just for alumni expected in July.)
Perhaps the most intriguing proposal dangled at the June 10 forum had nothing to do with the Fairfax campus. It surrounded the possibility of a future medical school at the Prince William (“Sci/Tech”) campus.
It could prove “a very, very exciting opportunity – such a game-changer,” Janks said.
But then, in his next breath: “I don’t want to overpromise.”