REBUILDING SHU: University Striving to Maintain Open Space on Compact Campus

June 13, 2013 at 11:47 AM

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – If the weather is nice and the walkways are not crowded, it takes about 12 minutes to walk from the Farinella Gate at one end of Seton Hall’s campus to the Ward Gate at the other end.

By any measure, Seton Hall is a compact suburban campus where open space is valued and attempts by the university to expand invariably cause growing pains. The current rebuilding, which will last several years, is no different.

  • REBUILDING SHU: Part 9 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 8: Zoning.

The addition of 500 parking spots to the existing parking deck should go a long way toward solving the past year’s parking crisis, and the renovation of some of the oldest buildings will give the 157-year-old campus a new, sophisticated look.

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But no matter how much things change, the university still has to contend with a severely limited footprint.

With 58 acres of land all in the Village of South Orange, Seton Hall had 8,800 registered students during the 2012-2013 academic year–roughly 152 students for each and every acre.

When the weather gets warm, students flock to the largest open space on campus, the University Green, making that part of Seton Hall as crowded as a packed beach at the Jersey Shore.

Although Seton Hall may be heavily populated, it is far from being the densest campus around. It is Eden compared to Columbia University in Manhattan. With 32 acres and about 26,000 enrolled students, Columbia has a student-to-space ratio of about 828 students per acre.  Even after Columbia completes its current Manhattanville renewal project, which will expand the campus 17 acres into West Harlem, there still will be 531 students per acre, far more than Seton Hall’s 152 per acre.

But even Columbia can seem like an English garden compared to a highly urbanized campus such as Fordham University at Lincoln Center in New York, where 988 students are packed into each of its eight acres.

Growth is a challenge for all of these compact, urban universities. But unlike Columbia, which acquired additional land for expansion, Seton Hall is completely landlocked with nowhere to grow. Constructing anything usually requires the removal of existing buildings to make room for new ones.

For example, the new Stafford Hall academic building will take the place of the existing brick structure, which is one of the oldest buildings on campus. And before a new University Center can be built, the old one will have to be razed.

“We were talking about–with two buildings–really only increasing the footprint of the buildings by 6,000 to 8,000 square feet,” said John Signorello, vice president of facilities and operations at Seton Hall. “That shows you how hard we worked to try and keep everything within the zoning requirements.”

Besides finding enough land for its planned construction, Seton Hall also must be mindful of vertical growth because South Orange’s zoning law limits the height of campus buildings.  There is a lower height restriction on buildings close to the homes along South Orange Avenue and Centre Street, Signorello said.

Unlike city colleges where buildings rise 20 or 30 stories, no Seton Hall building exceeds seven floors.  However, most are much shorter, limiting space for classrooms and dorms–which are pressing needs, according to A. Gabriel Esteban, the president of Seton Hall.

“I think if you’re going to spend four years of your life as an undergrad you want to be in a place that you’re comfortable and where you think you’re going to enjoy the people and the facilities,” Esteban said.

Despite the space crunch on campus, Seton Hall has managed to retain its suburban feel.  Of the 58 acres, buildings cover only 14 acres.

“The remainder is open space, open parking and vehicle/pedestrian circulation,” Signorello wrote in an email. 

 “We don’t have that much open space so we definitely work to preserve it,” he said.

Unlike Manhattan colleges, which are accessible by public transportation, most students commuting to Seton Hall drive cars, so parking takes up a large amount of space, including the 82,000 square foot parking deck.

As part of the planning process for the current construction, Signorello and Tracy H. Gottlieb, vice president of student services, toured renovations at other universities, including St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, which opened a new student center in March of this year.

“If you think we’re challenged for space, you ought to go over to St. Peter’s,” Gottlieb said of the 30-acre urban campus.  “They’ve got buildings on top of buildings, so I was feeling quite rural when I came back to South Orange.”

This series was reported and written by the Advanced Reporting class at Seton Hall University. This article was written by Kristyn A. Lyncheski, a May 2013 graduate.

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