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UCF finds its amenities are academic
The Orlando college is setting the standard for state schools with its attention to student life.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 14, 2007
The state's second largest university has just completed a Town Center-type project at the edge of its Orlando campus that best illustrates UCF administrators' attempts to turn a suburban, traditionally commuter university into a place with a sense of community.
[Melissa Lyttle | Times]
ORLANDO -- Ashley Winholtz, 18, rarely strays more than a short walk from the fifth-floor apartment she shares with three other college students.
"Everything is right here," said Winholtz, a Tampa native. "It's like a town in itself."
There's a new Starbucks and Barnes & Noble bookstore next door to their just-built apartment tower. A sleek basketball arena and concert hall sits across the street. Winholtz and her roommates attend football games at the 45,000-seat stadium a short walk away, and when they get a craving for pizza or ice cream, restaurants are less than a block beyond their front lobby.
Soon, a post office, a pharmacy and a convenience store will open down the street- near the hair salon and the English pub.
Yes, you read correctly: the English pub.
Here on the north end of the University of Central Florida's suburban campus, on a vast swath that was mostly grass and asphalt three years ago, administrators of the state's second-largest public institution are trying to shed their "commuter school" label by building a community from scratch.
"With our student body, we want to have a lot of things for them to do on campus," said Bill Merck, vice president for administration and finance. "We want living here to be a good experience."
To that end, UCF is using more than $300-million in bonds to create a town center where students can live, eat, study and revel in college traditions like football. The last of four dorms opened last month, housing a total of 2,000 students. The stadium hosted UCF's first-ever home game on campus last month, after playing for years in downtown Orlando's Citrus Bowl. Students already have a nickname for this new part of campus: the Towers, a nod to thefour seven-story, apartment-style residence halls that anchor the area.
No other state university in Florida is building these kinds of amenities on such an aggressive scale, and the move carries a double-pronged advantage for UCF. It entices more students to live on campus, creating a more traditional college environment. And it gives UCF a distinctive edge over universities like Florida International, the University of South Florida -- even the University of Florida.
Concert arenas, restaurants and swanky new dorms don't have anything to do with an institution's academic caliber, but the fact is, they matter to today's graduating high school seniors. When students tour a campus, they're as curious about the gym as they are the academic programs. Most would rather live in a new dorm than an old one, and the more restaurants and social venues, the better.
College administrators know this is what students want. Just look around the state.
USF is using a $54-million bond to overhaul its 47-year-old student union. When it's finished next year, the new 250,000-square-foot Marshall Center will feature a food court, a 100-station computer lab, a TV lounge, retail space, and a sports grill.
President Judy Genshaft promises, "It is going to knock your socks off."
Earlier this month, Florida Atlantic University trustees approved a financing plan for a 30,000-seat football stadium project called "Innovation Village," which will include on-campus housing and retail space.
But UCF is out front in the amenities race, say some students who toured Florida's public universities.
"My top two choices were USF and UCF, but I chose UCF for the campus appeal," said Sabrina Rivera, 18, an economics major from California. "It just feels more alive here."
Even a flagship university like UF, with its ivy-covered buildings and more than 150 years of history, doesn't appeal to some students as much as the smells-like-fresh-paint perks at UCF.
Winholtz considered UF but decided she preferred "all the new stuff" at UCF.
"At UF," she said, wrinkling her nose, "everything is so old."
Remembering the past
A large aerial photo of the UCF campus, circa 1966, hangs in Merck's office. To him, it's a reminder of what a difference four decades and smart planning can make.
"Being in a place that suddenly started growing, with Disney and everything, our student growth has been amazing," Merck said. "So we always had to be entrepeneurial -- how to make do with less, and do it well? That's been the spirit from the beginning."
Back in 1966, three years after lawmakers established the school, there were no buildings on the 1,450-acre site that hugs the line between Seminole and Orange counties.
When classes began in 1968, fewer than 2,000 enrolled. Today UCF has more than 48,000 students, including the largest undergraduate population in Florida.
Like USF, UCF has always lacked the history and college-town vibe of the University of Florida and Florida State University. And its location on the outskirts of Orlando was a challenge from the start.
So officials looked to the University of California at Irvine for inspiration, aiming to build a student-friendly, walkable campus.
They platted the campus as a series of circles with classrooms and student facilities in the center and athletic facilities and parking on the perimeter.
The result: It takes only about 15 minutes to walk across campus. Behind the student union is a 600-acre conservation area where students can walk through a shaded boardwalk.
"It's the layout of the campus," said president John Hitt. "We hear that a lot from students: that they walked onto campus and it felt like home."
"Like home" is a mantra that guided administrators planning the new arena and stadium area, Merck said.
It started as a small-scale plan to expand the convocation/arena from 5,000 seats to 10,000, so that UCF could accommodate larger graduation ceremonies.
But state construction dollars are tight, so Merck and other administrators decided to think bigger.
By adding revenue-generating features like the arena, retail and restaurants, they could take out more than $300-million in bonds and pay the bonds back with the revenues.
With the 2,000 new dorm beds, UCF now has 6,080 beds on campus. That's not far behind the University of Florida, which has 7,000 dorm beds on its Gainesville campus.
USF has 4,400 students living on campus, though new residence halls are planned in coming years.
Jessica Jaddaoui, 22, a senior premed major from Delray Beach, studied recently in the Barnes & Noble next to the newest residence hall tower. She has mixed feelings about UCF's new amenities.
"All the stuff is cool, and it is important for UCF's notoriety," she conceded. "But when they told us how much they spent on all this, I was a little disheartened. I mean, our academic programs are still underfunded."
But even Jaddaoui can't help but be a little starstruck.
She plans to attend the home football games in UCF's new stadium, and part of her wishes she weren't graduating this year.
"Why did they build all this stuff when I'm leaving? No fair!"