Making the modern university campus a first class experience

 —  Article by JLL Staff Reporter
Youth Friends Friendship Technology Together Concept at university
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Student housing worth emailing home about. Stylish student centers for work and play. State-of-the-art research facilities. Today’s college campuses have to work hard to make the grade among a new breed of savvy student.

With rising numbers of students and increasing competition among top universities for the brightest and the best, higher education institutions around the world are facing a need to invest in more, and higher quality, student housing, research facilities and amenities once unheard of in the educational sector.

To rise to the occasion, universities are drawing from the urban planning playbook and creating multi-faceted live-work-play environments. More than $11 billion in construction was deployed on U.S. university campuses in 2015, according to College Planning and Management’s new Construction Report. A University Business survey found that 53 percent of university executives were either planning a major construction project in the 2014-2015 academic year, or expecting to initiate plans in 2015-2016.

“The vision of a more compelling campus experience to attract students is inspiring institutions across the United States to explore innovative new construction and renovation opportunities,” says Brian Terrell, Managing Director, Project and Development Services for JLL. “Institutions also are seeing opportunities to reinvigorate their role in their communities with event venues and commercialization centers that connect researchers with the business community.”

Rising enrollment spurs new development

Rapidly rising enrollment is spurring much new construction on university campuses. At University of California-Merced, for example, an anticipated jump from approximately 6,000 students today to 10,000 by 2020 inspired an ambitious project to nearly double the size of its campus with a 1.5-million-square-foot master-planned development encompassing teaching, research and residential facilities on a 219-acre university-owned site.

Similarly, Bowling Green State University has embarked upon a major master planned development including student housing and dining facilities, state-of-the-art teaching and research facilities, and a new healthcare center, to address the needs of current and future students.

“When backed by a realistic business plan, campus transformation projects can help an institution attract students with modern, sustainable facilities and generate strong return on investment,” says Terrell. “New facilities can even become profit centers when students are willing to pay fees for additional dormitory services or an upgraded recreational center.”

The University of Bath in the UK recently completed a multi-faceted development program that includes major phased refurbishments and multi-purpose new facilities to inspire the next generation of thinkers and innovators. In addition to state-of-the-art student accommodations, the university also boasts a technology-enabled study area and world-class teaching facilities.

Tim Harris, Director, Project Management at JLL in the UK, says: “The focus today is very much on the student experience. Universities are looking to provide cleaner, crisper learning environments which are becoming more like modern offices with space for open plan group collaborative working. Technology is a big consideration in the use of building materials with the massive surge in WiFi bandwidth demands and the transient campus population moving from work space to live space.”

Improving the town-and-gown relationship

In some instances, the new development is a means of generating revenue from university-owned land, while engaging more deeply with the surrounding community. Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), for example, wanted to continue the revitalization begun with its highly successful $180 million Technology Square development in Midtown Atlanta. The next phase of this mixed-use development, currently under design, is the 21-story, 750,000-square-foot High Performance Computing Center, a world-class office, computing center and retail complex. GIT is the anchor tenant and sponsor and is partnering with a private developer who will design, construct, finance, own, operate and lease the project to GIT and commercial companies.

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is adopting a similar strategy for an under-utilized university-owned site in Pittsburgh, with plans for an office, hotel and retail complex that could total up to 425,000 square feet. The project, together with the related Tepper Quadrangle teaching and entrepreneurship center set to break ground later this year, is a critical step toward creating the world’s next “Innovation Corridor” in Pittsburgh—connecting the CMU campus to the larger business world. Among other uses, the mixed-use complex will provide new office space for industry, government and nonprofit partners seeking to establish or enlarge their footprints at the university.

Sophisticated financing is fundamental

Creative, complicated financing structures are a hallmark of the most ambitious campus transformation projects. Making the numbers add up can be particularly challenging for publicly funded colleges and universities scrutinized closely for use of taxpayer dollars.

When a public California university needed to expand campus facilities to support enrollment growth, state budget restraints presented an obstacle. The solution? A $150 million public-private partnership (“P3″ financing) that acquired a portfolio of university-owned facilities, providing funding for a for 32-acre development of multi-family and for-sale housing.

“The infusion of private capital and management via a public-private partnership can ease fiscal restraints and boost efficiency,” says Herman Bulls, Vice Chairman, Americas at JLL and the founder of JLL’s Public Institutions practice. “But these partnerships are highly complex policy instruments that require specialized expertise for successful implementation.”

Managing multiple stakeholders

Further complicating most higher-education projects is the decision-making process. Master plans and project budgets typically involved multiple stakeholder groups along with public and private funding sources. Faculty and student committees may also have a vote with regard to facility design and purpose.

“Critically, almost nothing happens without the support of the institution’s trustees,” adds Bulls. “So, in addition to the customary challenges of managing a development project—costs, labor, avoiding delays and so forth—project managers need to excel at keeping stakeholders engaged and informed, and building consensus among diverse groups.”

The education sector is changing fast, and it’s proving to be a learning curve for both students and universities.

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