SJSU gives student union $88M expansion

Originally published in the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal April 1, 2011

By Mary Ann Azevedo

After 42 years, San Jose State University is about to get a bigger, and better, student union. The challenge is to complete the project while class is in session.

The university kicked off an $88 million expansion last November in an effort to better meet the students’ growing needs. The university’s current 140,000-square-foot student union has long been bursting at the seams, according to Cathy Busalacchi, executive director of the Student Union Inc., a nonprofit within the SJSU system.

“This is a long time coming,” she said. “We’re trying to engage students — especially commuter students — on a more regular basis.”

In the past five years, the number of clubs on campus has climbed to 360 from 220. As the number of student groups have increased and grown larger in size, the facility’s lack of large meeting space has become more of an issue.

“We only have one room, besides the ballroom, large enough to accommodate 75 or more people,” Busalacchi said.

Daniel Benavides of O’Connor Construction Management, which is overseeing the development, said the facility’s design has taken more than two years to complete.

There have also been concerns with underground utilities.

“We’ve run into things that weren’t identified, so we will have to re-route so we can put the building where it needs to go,” he said.

Chris Van Plet, a project manager with general contractor Lathrop Construction, said there has been worry that the underground utilities will hold up the project, but it’s too early to tell if that will be the case.

The first phase of the project is focused on a new east and west wing while leaving the current space intact so as to cause minimal disruption to students.

The existing building also will receive a seismic retrofit and be brought up to meet current safety code. One of the most difficult tasks has been to figure out how to install a steel structure into the existing caste to provide adequate seismic resistance to strengthen the building, said Bob Lavey, managing principal with Perkins + Will, the project’s architect.

Once completed, the new 238,000- square-foot student union will boast numerous new features including: 10 new food concepts; a 24-hour convenience store; a much larger ballroom that can hold 600 to 650 people and can be divided into three; a 24-hour cyber café and several large meeting spaces. The old outdoor amphitheater will be converted into a modern indoor theater-style lecture hall with more than 300 seats.

New, lighter look

The new building will feature a more modern glass and steel design but still blend with the more classical aesthetics of the current facility, Lavey said.

Once the new sections are complete, focus will shift to revamping the current student union space, which will change “dramatically,” according to Busalacchi. This part of the project is slated for completion around November of 2012.

With gray cement and dark wood paneling on every floor, the current building is “not very open and light,” Busalacchi said. The dark wood banisters on every floor will be removed, and while the cement will stay, it will be power-sprayed for a fresher look.

The new facility should be eligible for LEED Silver and even possibly LEED Gold certification, Lavey said.

Student Union Inc. is funding the project from the sale of bonds held by the chancellor’s office, to be repaid through a combination of revenues generated from concerts, gym memberships, and meeting space rentals, and annual student fees paid directly to the Student Union Inc.

The expansion comes at a time when costs for materials, labor and planning are much lower compared to a few years ago.

Final completion of the building is slated for summer 2013, at which point services from across the campus, including International Extended Studies, the Women’s Resource Center and the Cesar Chavez Community Action Center, will begin moving into the new building. Most Student Union Inc. services will be limited or closed during that summer to accommodate the moving process before the facility’s official launch in the fall of 2013.

In the end, Busalacchi hopes the new Student Union will help put SJSU’s commuter reputation to rest.

“Some students may live around the Bay Area or close to campus,” she said.

The goal, Busalacchi said, is for the campus to become a place that all the students can enjoy and where they can feel comfortable.