A wave of new construction is changing the face of Oregon State University

Half a block from the student union in the heart of the Oregon State University campus, the new home of the College of Business is steadily taking shape.

With a massive red crane looming over the construction site, contractors have been working for weeks on the four-story, 100,000-square-foot Austin Hall. By the fall of 2014, what’s now a hulking concrete-and-steel skeleton will be a sleek, modern educational facility, with 10 classrooms, a 250-seat auditorium, dozens of offices and a cafe.

It’s a major upgrade for the college, which long ago outgrew its home base in aging, 52,000-square-foot Bexell Hall and currently teaches classes in a hodgepodge of locations scattered across the campus.

“It is an opportunity for us to have a space that reflects the quality of our people and our programs,” said Ilene Kleinsorge, the college’s dean.

“As we are competing to attract high-achieving students and the best Oregon has to offer, as well as the world, we needed a world-class facility.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing going around at OSU these days.

The $50 million Austin Hall, financed by equal parts private donations and state-authorized bonds, is only one of a dozen major construction projects either underway or in the works at the Corvallis campus, which is in the midst of a $300 million building boom.

In addition to Austin Hall, the projects include two new classroom buildings, a dormitory, three minority student cultural centers, a new student experience center, and major renovations of the Memorial Union and Strand Ag Hall. Construction recently wrapped up on a practice facility for the men’s and women’s basketball teams and a glitzy new campus bookstore.

This latest burst of activity is not an isolated event. Rather, it comes on the heels of several years of sustained growth that has seen renovations of several older buildings, the construction of gleaming new showplaces for the science and engineering programs, a dorm for international students, a tutoring center and a major outdoor recreation complex.

Brian Thorsness, executive director of campus operations, said some of the work is about replacing outdated infrastructure.

“We’ve got an awful lot of old buildings,” Thorsness said. “You walk around campus and you see this great environment to live and learn in, but 60 percent of our buildings are 50 years old or older.”

And there’s much more to be done, he said, from updating the university’s patchwork electrical grid to revamping the campus parking system with tiered rates and improved shuttle service aimed at shifting cars to underused parking lots and taking some of the burden off near-campus neighborhoods.

But a large portion of the recent construction activity is about accommodating booming enrollment growth and giving the campus a makeover in keeping with President Ed Ray’s lofty goal of transforming OSU into one of the nation’s leading land grant universities.

Money to pay for all the new construction has come from a variety of sources.

Big chunks of cash have rolled in from the Campaign for OSU, the highly successful fundraising drive by the Oregon State University Foundation that has brought in nearly $950 million to date. That includes a $10 million gift from alumni Ken and Joan Austin, the A-dec dental equipment magnates for whom the new College of Business building is named.

In addition, the Legislature has authorized millions of dollars in revenue bonds, which can be paid back over time.

And millions more have come from OSU students, who have voted to use their own fees to fund the $42 million Student Experience Center and the $8 million outdoor rec complex, among other projects.

“President Ray charged us with becoming a top-tier land grant institution, and I’d say everything we’ve done so far has been an important component of getting us there,” Thorsness said.

“It’s been a really exciting time to be a part of this.”

Some of the new construction has been dictated by necessity, such as the relocation of the old OSU Bookstore from its longtime home in the Memorial Union to a new facility in the parking garage on Southwest 26th Street near Gill Coliseum and Reser Stadium.

The move was necessitated by the decision to build the 88,000-square-foot Student Experience Center in the parking lot of the MU, with an 8,000-square-foot covered patio connecting the two.

“Not having any parking and being completely landlocked in the center of the university really didn’t fit our business model,” said Steve Eckrich, director of the private, nonprofit bookstore.

The renamed OSU Beaver Store opened in its new digs last Tuesday. Construction of the $12 million project was financed by state-issued bonds, which the bookstore will repay in addition to making monthly lease payments. At the end of the 35-year lease, the bonds will be paid off and ownership of the building will revert to the university.

At nearly 50,000 square feet, the new location has almost twice as much floor space as the old one, and the layout is designed to modern retail standards. The bookstore also has 110 dedicated one-hour spaces in the parking garage.

While still stocking textbooks and school supplies, the store also sells computers and consumer electronics and has a large selection of Beaver-logo merchandise as well as non-logo apparel.

Eckrich said he couldn’t be happier with the way things have worked out, both with the bookstore and the other recent construction projects.

“When you’re on a growing campus, I think you can expect these kinds of changes,” he said. “But they do feel like upgrades.”

Kleinsorge feels the same way.

Looking back on her 25 years at OSU, the College of Business dean can recall a time when students and faculty were willing to put up with overcrowded classrooms, crumbling infrastructure and frowzy facilities because they thought that was the best they could hope for.

Now, she says, there’s a new feeling on campus.

“It is in every nook and cranny of the university, and what I feel is a sense of aspiration as opposed to doing the best we can with what we have,” Kleinsorge said.

“I used to say it was a transformation, but now I think it’s more of a renaissance that’s going on with Oregon State,” she added.

“It feels like a rebirth.”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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