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RHA backs JBKO, Mitchell and Strong halls for summer renovations

Judy Lim | Hatchet Photographer
Judy Lim | Hatchet Photographer

Updated: Jan. 15, 2015 at 4:34 p.m.

The Residence Hall Association has a renovations wish list – and JBKO, Mitchell and Strong halls are at the top.

The University chooses just three halls to undergo renovations every year, and RHA President Ari Massefski said he will throw his organization’s support behind those buildings.

The group – which has seen success recruiting new leaders, piloting a text-to-unlock program and lobbying officials to install a communal kitchen in Thurston Hall this year – will serve as students’ loudest voice as GW makes its decision.

Officials will announce which halls will receive upgrades next month, but Massefski said those buildings should be top priorities because they are in the most need. If GW stays in line with the budgets of previous years, the halls selected will see renovations worth millions of dollars.

“When we advocate, those are the three we’re looking at,” Massefski said, adding that the RHA chose to back those specifics halls after speaking with hall councils, taking tours and hearing complaints from residents.

Massefski said JBKO, an eight-story hall built in 1945 that houses 265 sophomores, could use “serious work” in its kitchens and bathrooms. Students have complained about broken vents above the gas stoves, outdated appliances, cracked tiles, cabinets falling off their hinges and paint peeling on the walls.

He said the elevator in Strong, a 79-year-old building where members of Chi Omega and Pi Beta Phi sororities live, needs repair. The elevator is “frequently out of service,” said Arianna Zhuang, RHA communications chair for Strong Hall, and students have said the elevator can drop floors at a time and that its doors often malfunction.

Some students in 86-year-old Mitchell, which included 350 single rooms, have chipped floors, ceilings with mold and wall panels that are falling apart.

Officials have already named those halls as contenders for the project, as well as 2109 F St. and Francis Scott Key, Guthridge and Shenkman halls. Massefski said FSK should be slated for renovations by 2019.

Allan From, who chairs the Board of Trustees’ student affairs committee, said upgrading residence halls is a top priority for GW because students “deserve the best.”

“The school has taken a stand that they want to rehabilitate and renovate the old dorms so they can be brought up to a level they need to be brought up to,” From said. “We want the students to feel safe and secure. We’ll look at not only structural things but safety aspects as well.”

While six halls on campus have been built since 2000, and officials also committed $130 million to build District House, which is set to open in 2016, the majority of buildings on campus haven’t been fully renovated for years.

To make up for that, GW has invested millions of dollars over the past five years in upgrading some of the University’s oldest residence halls, focusing on a few key features for each building.

Starting in the early 1990s, the University went through a construction boom – upgrading buildings that eventually earned it the title “Dorms Like Palaces” from the Princeton Review – in an effort to lure students to what was then-considered a commuter school. Tuition soon grew to an all-time high, in part to finance the construction, but also to pay for the robust student services that became a key part of GW’s reputation.

Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who led GW’s residence hall expansion, said the look and feel of halls are crucial in the competition among colleges.

“People come to a world-class university expecting world-class facilities in all aspects of the institution. The job is never done,” Trachtenberg said. “They want the whole picture, the best housing they can get. And GW is way ahead of the pack.”

But now, many of those once-luxurious buildings are starting to show their age. After two years of renovating two to three halls every summer – spending as much as $4 million in 2012 – the University announced last spring that it would formally choose three halls to upgrade every summer.

As part of the plan, every building will be updated every seven years. Last summer, during the first round of the renovation cycle, City Hall’s wallpaper and carpets were removed, International House’s kitchens were upgraded and The Dakota was renovated for the first time in 15 years, which included ripping out old carpeting, installing new appliances and cabinets, and moving in new furniture.

“New is the American way. You’re always having to renovate, update, enhance, expand and, if it’s not one thing, it’s another,” Trachtenberg said.

Officials spent millions of dollars to gut 75 kitchens in Fulbright Hall and install fresh countertops and cabinetry in 2013. New appliances were also installed in some rooms.

And in 2012, GW earmarked $2.5 million to upgrade bathrooms and replace some kitchen cabinets in Munson Hall. That same year, the University spent more than $3 million on upgrades to The Aston and Guthridge, Mitchell and City halls.

University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt declined to provide the amount of money that would likely be set aside for this coming summer’s renovations, saying that the expense would be finalized once the Board of Trustees approves the University’s capital budget in May.

Ray Thompson, an expert in facilities and higher education at MGT of America, said because of the amount of time college students spend outside of the classroom and the revenue that can be generated through providing housing, universities should consider renovations frequently.

He said the facilities offered to a student can play a major role in deciding which institution to attend or whether to live on or off campus.

“It has a significant impact on the connection to the university, retention and student recruitment at the beginning,” he said. “If it’s a sound financial plan and acceptable to all the parties, it’s definitely worth doing.”

Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said he and other leaders in the University’s operations and housing departments will narrow down a list of the top contenders for summer renovations over the next month.

Konwerski said as buildings age and time goes on, students expect different amenities and won’t utilize past ones, such as wiring for landlines in each room.

“We try to provide the things that are more responsive to the needs you have today than maybe five or 10 years ago, and students coming five years from now will probably want slightly different things too,” Konwerski said.

The decision also depends on whether the renovations could be completed in a 12- to 13-week window, Konwerski added.

Patrick Quinn, the vice president of Mitchell’s RHA hall council, said since the beginning of the year, he’s seen water damage in the lobby, holes in ceilings and mold in several rooms.

“No one’s even complaining anymore. We’re all just making fun of it at this point,” Quinn said.

Sen. Omeed Firouzi, U-at-Large, who is the Student Association Senate’s student life committee chair, said he backs the RHA’s decision to prioritize JBKO, Mitchell and Strong halls. He added that South Hall’s elevators could also use some attention.

“South Hall ought to be looked at given the frequent issues with elevator maintenance and hot water outages,” Firouzi said.

– Jacqueline Thomsen and Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.

This post was updated to reflect the following the correction:
Due to an editing error, The Hatchet incorrectly spelled Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski’s last name. It is Konwerski, not Knowerski. We regret this error.

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