SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – As the largest, most centralized spot of the university, Seton Hall University’s Bishop Dougherty University Center is, according to Tracy H. Gottlieb, vice president of student services, “the heart of the campus."

The multi-use building contains the largest gathering places on campus, along with a cafeteria, coffee house, meeting rooms and the Theatre-in-the Round, an innovation at the time the center opened in 1962.

Half a century later, the theater and the entire building are showing their age.  The university looked into the cost of renovating the center to bring it up to date, but decided the cost of doing so made such a project impractical.

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  • REBUILDING SHU: Part 3 of 11. Seton Hall University embarks on the biggest campus renovation in a generation, hoping to make life better  for students without making life worse for residents of  South Orange. Read Part 1: Overview. Read Part 2: State Funding

So instead of being renovated, the old center will be demolished and replaced by a larger, architecturally consistent and more versatile space that will be the striking centerpiece of Seton Hall’s five-year rebuilding campaign.

“We want students to congregate there and be in the building,” Gottlieb said, “We want it to be a nice space.” 

The university’s new president, A. Gabriel Esteban, said in an interview that the university center project, like other initiatives on campus, is all about “trying to create an environment for the students to be successful.”

According to Esteban, the new building will contain a variety of spaces, small and large, for students to gather.  The new main ballroom will seat around 500 people and can be divided based on need.  Additionally, the admissions office will move to the new building to immerse incoming students in the SHU community.

“If you go by our parking lot in the afternoon, you’ll see lots of our students eating in their cars because there are very few places to hang out, so to speak,” Esteban said. “So it’s a matter of creating spaces to gather, to learn, to have meetings and so on.”

Seton Hall originally had planned to start construction on the new university center in 2014.  But after receiving state funds from a special bond issue that could only be used to build classroom spaces, the date was pushed back to 2016, according to John Signorello, associate vice president for facilities and operations.

The new center is expected to change the look and feel of the university, which is one reason why it has become a target of criticism from some residents of South Orange. 

South Orange resident John Gay started a petition on Change.org to urge the South Orange Planning Board to reject the new University Center as originally proposal.  The petition claims that construction will decrease the open space along South Orange Avenue, destroy old trees, diminish neighborhood appeal and cause excess noise and pollution.

In the first month after the petition was published in early April, 64 out of almost 17,000 residents signed it.

Several attempts to contact Gay were unsuccessful.

Signorello said he can appreciate residents’ concerns about the new construction, but he thinks that much of it stems from “fear of the unknown.” He said he believes that such issues will be worked out once the university presents more detailed plans to South Orange authorities.

The new university center, along with the new Stafford Hall and the additional floor planned for the Aquinas Residence Hall, are being designed by KSS Architects of Princeton, a firm that has previously done work at universities such as Drew and Kean. The new university center will be built in the same location as the current center, but will rise four stories high. It will have a larger footprint than the current building, and will extend across the current paved walkway to include the area of Duffy Hall, which will be demolished, Signorello said.

An added road will also be built running from Farinella Gate, behind Cabrini Hall, to the new university center in order to make deliveries easier and provide more direct emergency access.  This new road will not be connected to South Orange Avenue, however, and Esteban said traffic off campus would not be affected.

Signorello said that the construction is set to last about two years but he would not give an estimated cost for the project as details are still being worked out.  Temporary buildings will be erected on the grassy area near South Orange Avenue to house the cafeteria, bookstore, classrooms, and other spaces that will be displaced when the current center is demolished.

Several options are being considered for the temporary buildings, which could be used for as long as three years. University officials said one option is a temporary pavilion like the kind used at big sporting events. Such buildings have aluminum frames and can be heated and cooled effectively.

Although plans for the new university center are moving ahead, both Signorello and Gottlieb are aware that in the meantime the existing university center needs some renovation.

“Those of us who have our offices in the university center want to live and want our students to live in a place (where) we’re no longer saying, ‘Oh well we’ll ignore that because this is headed for the wrecking ball in a year,’” Gottlieb said.

Signorello said renovations would include changes to aesthetics (paint, carpets, furniture) as well as steps to maximize seating and create space for students to gather.  He added that the university has not yet set a budget for the renovations, but it should be less than $100,000. 

This series was reported and written by the Advanced Reporting class at Seton Hall University. This article was written by Alexandra R. D’Aluisio, a senior.