Town hall explores ideas for new Student Activities Building

Office of the Dean of Students, Meriwether Lewis Institute Fellows, others look to gather student insight

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Attendees to "A New SAB" brainstorm functions of the new Student Activities Building.

Chandler Collins | Cavalier Daily

A planning team comprised of architects, representatives from the Office of the Dean of Students and Meriwether Lewis Institute Fellows held a town hall at 1515 on the Corner last Friday, inviting students to discuss a new Student Activities Building.

A focus group has been working on improving the current SAB and is trying to gather input to make the student-run building as useful and accessible for students as possible. The SAB, located near Scott Stadium, was first built in 1983 and currently offers a space to hold new student orientation and other student gatherings. 

In the summer of 2017, the Meriwether Lewis Institute Fellows focused on the SAB. There are seven MLI fellows continuing to work on the SAB project. Run through the Student Affairs office, the Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership engages a 25-person cohort in a leadership development program. The institute begins with a project in the summer between second and third year and involves other engagements during fellows’ third and fourth years. 

The interactive town hall was split into a morning and an afternoon session and focused on three topics: “Grounds Journey Mapping,” to work out where student activities are around Grounds; “SAB Site,” to think about how to make the SAB accessible; and “SAB Functions and Program”, to figure out what environment the SAB should be providing. 

Caroline McNichols, a third-year Engineering student and MLI fellow, said the town hall was a way of gathering the opinions of different students. 

“Today is really about reaching anyone in the community who wants to have a voice regarding the new SAB,” McNichols said. “So, the point is to use the tools these consultants have created … to garner input from more people — what the SAB could be, how it’s used now, [and] things people like about it.”

Third-year College student Caroline West helped start the venture for a new SAB in the fall of 2016 as part of an independent thesis for her major. 

West said the three theatres on Arts Grounds are primarily used for the drama departments’ own productions, meaning the theatres do not have the capacity to allow student-run theatre groups to perform there. Thus, student-run performances like those of First Year Players are put on in the current SAB. 

“I was in First Year Players my first semester here and was on stage and just saw all the problems,” West said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “It’s a makeshift stage with two hundred seats crammed in. There’s a fan blowing that sometimes goes off halfway through, and you realize you haven’t been able to hear the performers. It has a lot of problems.”

Marsh Pattie, assistant vice president for student affairs and associate dean of students, has been working on the project with West since 2016. 

“Our process in the beginning was to put together an ad-hoc working group to begin to look at the space and do an early needs assessment, about what we wanted to develop and change about it,” Pattie said. “Some of it was fed by the work that was done in the space we’re standing in — 1515. It had come out of that. Then, as the year progressed, as momentum continued to grow, we realized that we needed a lot of expertise to come in.”

Over the summer of 2017, the Meriwether Lewis Institute focused on the SAB as its summer project. Students studied and conducted analyses to develop five separate proposals for ideas that they believed would improve the SAB. 

The first group proposed rebuilding the SAB with a focus on engaging first-years, while the second wanted it to be a space for performing arts, but with first-year amenities. The third group proposed building a performing arts center in the Emmet/Ivy corridor. The fourth suggested a new SAB — closer to Grounds — to serve as a student union. The final group proposed renovation of the SAB to afford greater flexible functionality. 

Following the work done by the MLI fellows, HGA — an architectural firm — began working with the focus group to get recommendations and to begin design concepts. 

d’Andre Willis, principal at HGA’s Washington, D.C. office, said the firm was currently in the progress of gathering student feedback to make something that would represent students’ needs. 

“We did a visioning session with the working group last November and then we also launched the student online survey that went out about a month ago,” Willis said. “Today, we’re backing this up with student discussion and more journey mapping. Altogether,this is really going to help us with making recommendations … something to work with in terms of framework for allocating money and allocating site resources.” 

West said she did not want to discount the five ways in which the SAB is currently used. It is a rehearsal/practice space for groups such as Salsa Club; a performance space for student theatre and multicultural groups such as Asian Student Organization; a creative space where all the sets for performances are created; a space for multicultural groups, particularly black fraternities, to host functions; as well as a space for fairs and orientation. 

“I think those functions are important to retain. So, the people who use it now, still get to use it in the way they’ve used it - in a better way - rather than be forgotten,” West said. “That’d be a huge problem that we don’t want to have happen.”

While there have been discussions about whether or not the SAB itself will be moved, West said one of the benefits of having it close to new dorms and the stadium is that it is not so close to Central Grounds. 

“It is kind of nice to not be at the center of the University,” West said. “You want to keep the integrity of it being a student-run space, and having it not right next to the administration helps that become more of a reality.”

West said she was very excited to be a part of the project and was hopeful that it would be able to benefit a lot of groups on Grounds. 

“It’s been my passion since I was in the play first semester,” West said. “It’s just so obtainable for a University of this caliber. It’s so fixable, and I think it could improve so many people’s lives here.”

In an email to The Cavalier Daily, West said she thought the day had been a success. Around 40 students showed up and brought different ideas, which the working group explored.

“Although we as the working group initially thought that an open space might be more conducive to the multi-purpose nature of the building, more and more students expressed their interest in creating a true stage/open theater in the space,” West said.

After the town hall, the working focus groups will continue to evaluate exactly what students want to do with the space. Pattie said that by the end of the semester, they will have a time frame and firm design parameters.

“The next step would be to take the program design recommendation and site locations recommendations to the Board [of Visitors] for consideration of approval,” Pattie said. 

This article has been updated to clarify the current uses of the Student Activities Building.

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