Front and Center Central District delivers science and student life while uniting and expanding Lawrence campuses

By Chris Lazzarino

A finger-snap ago, Central District was nothing more robust than an artist’s rendering, a wish list, part of a master plan for what our beloved campus could one day be, how it should live and breathe and teach and embrace, for the next half-century or more.

Less than two years later—“We tried to build it as fast as we could,” said one project architect—and this thing is done.

Or, if not done, close to it, at least for now, and all those fears we might have silently nursed about too much, too soon? Park them. The newly christened Central District—40-plus acres of mostly empty or under-utilized space bordered by Allen Field House, Oliver Hall, 19th Street, Daisy Hill and Irving Hill Road—is suddenly a vibrant center of student life, faculty research and science education.

The Integrated Science Building will redefine science research and education at KU. A new Burge Union features the largest single-use room in Lawrence, along with student affairs offices, comfy study space and a grab-and-go snack shop.

A new central utility plant—which even features a classroom for engineering students and a glass exterior wall that allows pedestrians and cyclists heading to and from Daisy Hill on the newly built Jayhawk Trail to see the wizardry of a modern utility station—delivers energy-efficient heat and power across Central District and beyond. New power and water lines were brought in, much-needed stormwater collection and drainage sites were created.

There’s a new residence hall, named for Professor Cora Downs, c’1915, g’20, PhD’24, the first woman to receive a KU doctorate, and suite-style apartments, which carry the name of the outdated predecessor, Stouffer Place.

The list continues: a new dining center, full-size recreation field, parking garage, surface parking, streets, walkways.

We take a lot of pride in this project, in that it took 40 acres of prime space on our beautiful campus and made it better. And not just in appearance. It’s hitting a lot of needs that KU has. I think we did a great job of making a smart improvement and investment in KU that the next generations of Jayhawks are going to use and appreciate.” — University Engineer Phil Ellsworth.

With so many pieces to the puzzle, the massive construction site was, for all of 2016 and 2017, a confusing jumble. It was hard to see how the parts could possibly become a whole, but it worked.

The only way to believe it is to see it, and the only way to see it is to be there, feet on the ground, senses open to a new energy and distinct vibe that now illuminate what was once an ill-defined hillside of haphazard development, dilapidated housing, forgotten fields.

“We’ve gone from having basically two areas on campus to having three areas,” says Mark Reiske, a’86, director of KU’s Office of Facilities Planning and Development. “We’ve taken facilities that were built before man was on the moon and we’ve replaced them. I want every researcher in ISB to have everything they need to do world-class research, and I want everyone coming back to be proud of what KU is doing. I want the guys I went to school with, if they come back to a reunion, to think I’ve done good.”

So how did $350 million of construction across 40 acres come together as well as it did? It’s all in the planning.

The first formal layout for what evolved into Mount Oread, sketched in 1904 by St. Louis architects George Kessler and Henry Wright, called for campus to grow south and west along the ridgetop, away from downtown Lawrence. Kansas City landscape architects Hare & Hare in 1928 envisioned what became Jayhawk Boulevard, a plan that was refined and expanded four years later.

As far as is known, another campus master plan did not emerge until 1995, at the juncture of Gene Budig and Robert Hemenway’s chancellorships. Formalized in 1997, that plan called for a new western face for the Kansas Union, park-and-ride lots on West Campus, relocation of athletics facilities south of Allen Field House, the removal of World War II annexes, and relocation of professional schools, including the School of Pharmacy, to West Campus, all of which quickly came to fruition.

Not so for plans to build a new home for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a revised, one-way traffic pattern for a narrowed Jayhawk Boulevard (which has actually been widened, with the removal of on-street parking), but the mid-1990s framework proved its worth in modernizing and updating a campus that for decades had expanded seemingly without coherent pattern. The University followed up with a landscape master plan in 2003 and, five years later, a Getty Foundation-funded campus heritage plan.

Then-Provost Jeffrey Vitter in 2014 said he began work on updating the 1997 campus master plan as soon as he arrived in 2010 but quickly saw that he needed to set that project aside to focus on what would prove to be a keystone of Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s tenure, a broad strategic plan called “Bold Aspirations.”

Presented to the Kansas Board of Regents in December 2011, Bold Aspirations emphasized KU’s role in “educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that will change the world.” With Bold Aspirations well underway, University leaders turned again to reinvigorating the physical campus’ master plan, which by then had not been updated for nearly 20 years, and emerged with a complex, comprehensive vision of how the University’s finite physical space—beautiful, yet, in too many ways, badly outdated—could serve limitless missions of education, research and service to Kansas.

Described by Vitter as an “exciting, dynamic plan,” the 2014 Campus Master Plan included a slew of proposals built around a core principle that campus should no longer be viewed as binary, with main and west campuses, and instead become a linked triad of north (Jayhawk Boulevard), central and west districts.

The “North District” nomenclature for the traditional academic core on Jayhawk Boulevard has not, thankfully, taken root, but the concept of an “Innovation Way”—a network of modern, dynamic new science structures linking the main, central and west campuses—most definitely did.

KU this spring opened Slawson and Ritchie halls, collectively known as the Earth, Energy & Environment Center, for classes and research in geology, geophysics and petroleum engineering, and on April 25 officially dedicated the dazzling complex.

“This facility is part of not just a physical change that we’re seeing across the campus,” Chancellor Doug Girod said at the grand-opening celebration, “but a physical and design transformation that we’re seeing across the University.”

The EEEC arose from what had been an unsightly parking lot along the east side of Naismith Drive, between Lindley and Learned halls, and Girod reminded the assembled crowd about the breadth of a “long string of changes” that have swept across that neighborhood of campus, including expansion of the School of Engineering complex, the School of Business’ Capitol Federal Hall, complete renovation of Swarthout Recital Hall inside Murphy Hall, and the DeBruce Center adjacent to Allen Field House.

“It was really Bernadette Gray-Little and Jeff Vitter who did the big renew with the University master plan,” Girod says. “They looked forward and said, ‘We’ve got this really exciting stuff going on on West Campus, we’ve got all the wonderful things going on on Jayhawk Boulevard, so how do we make this campus flow?’

“Everything built off that to create the continuity that you see today.”

Two days after EEEC’s grand opening, Girod returned to the same campus neighborhood for yet another grand opening: the new Burge Union. Central District was about to get real.

Eager to move the 2014 master plan from concept to reality, KU construction officials spent spring 2015 sorting through design and construction proposals, and in June 2015 entered into an informal agreement—what University Architect Jim Modig, a’73, describes as an “engagement period”—with Maryland-based Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate and Clark Construction.

The University in late 2015 financed the project by issuing $326 million in bonds through a Wisconsin public financing agency in what’s known as a public-private partnership, or P3. As detailed in a June article in the Lawrence Journal-World, the unusual arrangement, under which KU will make $22 million annual bond payments, drew rebukes from Topeka; although the plan had been closely reviewed by both the Kansas Board of Regents and the Legislative Joint Committee on State Bonding Construction, it had not been reviewed by the full Legislature.

KU proceeded with the P3, officials say, because time was money. A lot of money.

“We figured out a way to put this thing into turbocharged mode,” Reiske says.

“Every day that we delayed this project, it was between $42,000 and $45,000 of lost construction budget.”

KU spokesman Joe Monaco told the Journal-World that Central District financing was not part of the over-spending referenced by Interim Provost Carl Lejuez when Lejuez recently announced the need for $20 million in budget cuts, and construction officials say they acted when they did to lock in a rate that dropped five years off the life of the bonds and saved KU more than $40 million.

With bonds issued and contracts signed in the first week of January 2016, contractors immediately began putting up fencing, demolishing Stouffer Place Apartments and the Burge Union, and working on utilities.

Everything just seemed to explode at that point,” Modig says.

“The heartbeat of this whole project,” in Girod’s estimation, is the 280,000-square-foot Integrated Science Building, home to interdisciplinary research in chemistry, medicinal chemistry, physics, molecular biosciences and related fields. As expected, everything about ISB is state-of-the-art, yet delivered in unexpected ways.

A tiered auditorium has seating for 325 students, yet designers consider it to be more classroom than auditorium. Its white walls are actually whiteboards, and the tiered seats swivel to encourage small-group discussion. The room’s thoughtfulness even extends to comfort for left-handers, with one writing desk on each row designed to accommodate lefties, and three 90-inch monitors halfway up the tiers display video of experiments happening below.

“This is a unique auditorium,” says project architect Donald Gibson, of Edgemoor Infrastructure. “A lot of very knowledgeable, smart people brought their expertise to the table, working very collaboratively with researchers and faculty to bring their ideas to fruition.”

The same can be said for teaching and research laboratories, which feature modular utility rigs, tables and benches that can all be disassembled and rearranged. The laboratories boast 230 fume hoods, specialized plumbing that recirculates “huge amounts” of chilled water needed for experiments, and eco-friendly heat exchangers designed and patented by KU researchers.

ISB’s features also include 10,000 square feet of “clean room” laboratories, outfitted with high-efficiency particulate air filters, for research and teaching in nanosciences, and floor-to-ceiling exterior windows on both the north and south sides of the long building that flood hallways and laboratories with light. Even open-plan office space for graduate students and postdocs is a modern marvel.

“A lot of people working in corporations don’t get office space this nice,” Gibson says.

ISB’s central atrium is bright, airy, and to Jim Modig’s eye, ‘human-scaled,’ with nooks—technically, ‘collaboration spaces’—tucked here and there along the large stairways.

“It’s not that grand volume of space,” Modig says. “It’s comfortable.”

“Think of it on a cold, rainy day,” adds Gibson, smiling. “It’s going to be cozy.”

Construction of the Integrated Science Building was completed more than a month ahead of schedule. Faculty and staff began moving into the building in May, and the building was open for students when summer classes began June 5.

The new Burge Union, though, opened in April, and by the day of its formal dedication, April 27, the Burge had already hosted events in its 10,500-square-foot public event space, known as the Forum.Campus support services—including the Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity, Legal Services for Students and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center—had not only opened, but within two weeks were already reporting significant increases in student visits.

This side of campus has completely transformed,” Chancellor Girod said at the Burge’s grand re-opening. “This spot that you’re standing on is really the crossroad of all that, and will be for generations to come.”

The crossroad Girod referenced is the Burge’s east entrance, lined in “colonial red” accents. That color scheme, used on both Burge and ISB, was not merely about aesthetics, but is intended to evoke the beloved red-tile roofs atop Jayhawk Boulevard.

KU’s traditional building materials are now far too expensive, especially with tight budgets that force designers to squeeze every dollar into tangible and useful resources, but planners feared creating a “family of buildings” that didn’t fit well with the rest of campus.

“One of the challenges that we have,” Modig says, “is to be respectful of our heritage and our tradition, which is a lot of stone and red roofs. The economics of today may not afford us the ability to use those materials, but we continue to stay with a palette of materials that are warm tones, like stone, so that it has some of that continuity.”

A far bigger design challenge than color palettes was envisioning Central District as it has now risen, a welcoming layout of buildings and green space that feels entirely at home at the center of KU’s sprawling campus.

Standing between Burge and ISB a few minutes after Burge’s ribbon cutting ceremony, Modig is asked whether he’d harbored any hidden worries that Central District might not have turned out as well as it did. No amount of computer modeling and dazzling graphics can truly replicate the real thing at a life-size scale, and nobody truly knows until they’re standing on the finished site whether buildings and open spaces exist in concert and cohesion or conflict and chaos.

“The keep-you-up-at-night thing?” Modig replies. “Well ... yes. What you don’t see is, these buildings were flipped.”

He indicates the massive ISB, which runs east-to-west along Irving Hill Road, and its low-slung neighbor to the south, the new Burge Union. On that sunny April afternoon, the apron between the two buildings was bathed in lovely, inviting sunlight; had the buildings been reversed, with the taller ISB to the south, afternoon sun would have been blocked.

“This would strictly be darkness, very, very urban,” Modig explains. “I think that was a little contentious when we said we want to flip them.”

Donald Gibson, the Edgemoor architect, nods in agreement and says, “That was a major decision, to flip them.” Gibson adds that it was even more stressful because it came nearly halfway through a five- to six-month design process that was already a high-stakes, high-pressure enterprise.

“It was one of those things where you flip the drawing upside down and it just looks completely different,” Gibson says. “But once we did it, I think everybody realized it looked a lot better.”

Saved from its original fate as an urban canyon, the long walkway between ISB and Burge instead became one of those vital spaces alive with possibility. More than a mere pedestrian thoroughfare, it is a welcoming artery that invites relaxation and conversation.

Best of all, the passageway leads to one of Central District’s finest surprises: an open space west of Burge with a large lawn, an array of fanciful concrete benches, and an unmistakable tenor of community in the making.

“It’s a new exterior living room, a plaza, and it’s an amazing space to walk into,” Reiske says. “You’re coming down Jayhawk Trail into that large, open, welcoming space, and you’ve got handsome buildings on both sides, and as you walk back through that space, all of a sudden you’re getting this big view as campus opens up right before you.

“There’s a power to that.”

Yes, it all happened finger-snap fast, the 1,200 beds of student housing, nearly 300,000 square feet of research and teaching space, a new union outfitted with a huge catering kitchen and unrivaled convention and reception space, a parking garage, a utility plant, the open space where friends and colleagues will create generations of Jayhawk friendships, but now that we’ve spent time and resources devoted to the new, it’s time return focus to what came before: namely, Malott Hall.

Even with so much new laboratory and teaching space now online in ISB, Malott, by far the largest building on campus at 330,098 square feet, is still two-thirds occupied. Its newly vacated classrooms and offices might be reconfigured as “swing space” to house tenants from aging campus buildings crying out for renewal.

Haworth Hall, itself a 280,000-square-foot behemoth, might be first on the list—“If you have good bones to start with,” Modig says, “mid-century modern science facilities can be every bit as high-tech as what we’ve built in Central District”­—but there’s also work to be done up and down Jayhawk Boulevard: Bailey, Chalmers, Lindley, Stauffer-Flint and Strong halls all need extensive attention that would work best if occupants set up shop elsewhere for eight months or a year.

Since the Campus Master Plan was unveiled in 2014, KU has completed about 1.8 million gross square feet of academic, research and student-life space, at a cost of about $744 million, including the $350 million spent on six new buildings and critical infrastructure at Central District.

“It took great vision and a lot of fortitude to get through the Central District project,” Chancellor Girod says. “It was not without its political challenges, or its financial challenges, or its construction challenges, all of which were overcome quite successfully.”

University Architect Jim Modig (l) is flanked by (standing, l-r) Code Compliance Coordinator Larry Laubhan, University Engineer Phil Ellsworth; Shannan Nelson, associate vice provost for campus operations; and Mark Reiske, director of Facilities Planning and Development. Seated are University Fire Marshal Bob Rombach and Landscape Architect Marion Paulette.

Tellingly, the “it takes a village” trope was repeatedly invoked by Central District’s cast of players, but Lisa Kring, KU Memorial Union’s director of building and event services, used the Burge’s celebration to single out two.

“The stamina that it took to complete this project is immense, folks,” Kring told the crowd April 27, “and Jim and Mark certainly shouldered much of that.”

Predictably, Modig prefers that attention and praise be directed to others, most notably Mark Reiske and Phil Ellsworth, both of whom regularly logged 80-hour weeks on the Central District alone. Modig was so impressed by Reiske, in fact, that he relinquished his directorship and promoted Reiske from associate director to lead Facilities Planning and Development into its next adventures.

They’re all personal,” Reiske says of the projects large and small that continually reshape Jayhawks’ sanctified ground in the heart of Lawrence. “I can’t even imagine these projects not coming out well, for all of our alumni, all of our students, all of our faculty.”

Thanks to “funky, dreamed-up responsibilities,” Reiske is courtside at every men’s basketball game in Allen Field House, and watching Mario Chalmers drain that fabled jump shot in the pregame video always gives him goosebumps.

“Well,” Reiske says, a hint of emotion evident in his wavering voice, “when I talk about Central District, it’s the same kind of feeling.”

Now that Central District’s heavy lifting is all but complete—except for the literal heavy lifting of moving laboratories and offices from Malott to ISB—it’s time for a break, right?

“I’m looking forward to getting to that place,” Ellsworth says, “but summer is always our busiest construction time because we try to do as much as possible when the students are gone. I’m sure by the end of summer, hopefully, I’ll have some times where I can kick back and take a week off and reflect.”

Reflecting on the flurry of construction that has swept across Mount Oread since 2014, Modig says Central District will likely be his career topper, along with the Campus Master Plan. But he’s not walking away yet.

“Now that we’ve completed as much as we have, we probably need to do an update of the master plan. That would be nice to have under my belt. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not, but it would be a way to say, ‘OK, we’ve completed so much in the first round of master-plan improvements, now it’s time to set the stage for round two.’

“Maybe that’s the time to step away and turn it over to the younger bright minds we’ve recruited here on campus.”

Finger-snap fast, that’s how quickly change can come. And the results? Those will last for generations.

"Front and Center" originally appeared in issue No. 4, 2018, of Kansas Alumni magazine.


Photographs by Steve Puppe. © 2018 KU Alumni Association. All Rights Reserved.

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