As buildings on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University begin to show their age, the institution is offered a unique opportunity to decide how to move forward – and faced with the challenges of doing so.
A “spectrum” of possibilities, from minimal to transformative, still can be considered in the months left before a final proposal heads to Mason president Gregory Washington for consideration.
And for the man who is leading the planning process, shooting for the stars would not be such a bad idea.
“The campus deserves to be ‘next level.’ There’s a magic here that’s a little untapped,” said Gregory Janks, the consultant who for the past year has been leading Mason’s coordinated facilities-planning effort, looking at how the future will transpire at campuses in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William.
“There’s a scale here that allows us to have more opportunities,” Janks said of the Fairfax campus, which 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 Fairfax campus, more than four times the amount at the two other campuses, combined.
At a March 2 online community forum, Janks and others further sketched out options for the Fairfax campus, noting that both financial resources and the community’s attachment to some of the campus’s older (if not necessarily historic) buildings will play a role in final decision-making.
“There’s a lot of sentimental value [in the older buildings]. That’s not something we want to discount,” Janks said. And, he acknowledged, “we don’t have unlimited resources.”
Whatever decision ultimately is made by Mason leaders will be guideposts to the future, not a set-in-cement blueprint.
“This is a long-term process. It’s not like we going to do all this in six years,” said Carol Kissal, senior vice president for finance and administration at the university.
A top-down approach to redeveloping and expanding the main campus would bring with it risks, Kissal acknowledged, if the effort runs afoul of alumni and business interests in the community.
The constituencies, Kissal said, could be major supporters as the campus effort rolls on.
“A lot of important people have a passion for Mason and want to see it grow,” she said. “We want to start leveraging other resources that we know are out there.”
The March 2 gathering was the fifth in a series of town-hall meetings to gauge community reaction to the plans so far. And reaction has been forthcoming, some positive and some mixed with a twinge of concern.
Among the positive: “Love this vision!” responded Anne Magro, one of about 225 people to take part in the latest forum.
But Janet Walker, another participant, cautioned university officials not to rush pell-mell into the future without stopping to appreciate the past.
“The four original buildings [of the Fairfax campus] have sentimental value for sure – they are part of the university’s history, including its cultural history,” she said. “You couldn’t have the Mason of today without the Mason of the 1960s. And these buildings provide outdoor rooms/space that are not possible elsewhere. Please don’t remove them.”
The vision that appears to be coming into focus would retain much of the existing open space on the Fairfax campus. But Bernie Berne, a participant, said Mason did not have a solid track record in that regard.
“When GMU grows, why do its planners destroy existing open spaces and natural areas?” Berne asked. “This short-sighted type of land use causes Northern Virginia to lose its natural areas and biodiversity. It teaches its students a very poor lesson.”
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 other leadership to ratify a growth plan and find ways to fund and implement it.
“I’m here to listen,” Hazel said. “It’s important to get the right input so we can get the best outcomes.”
There is still time for the public to have its voice heard even as the planning process rolls toward its final stages, Janks said.
“Nothing is fixed in stone,” he said. “There’s enormous potential.”
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For information on the master-planning process, see the Website at https://bit.ly/3uPs4tt.