Learning curve: North Central College plans $60 million science center

The area south of Van Buren Avenue between Loomis and Brainard streets is the site chosen by North Central College trustees for the planned $60 million science center to be built in the next three years. A parking lot at Brainard and Van Buren will remain in place, but several homes owned by the college on the east end of the block are targeted for demolition to make room for the 120,000-square-foot building. |  Susan Frick Carlman~Sun-Times Media
The area south of Van Buren Avenue between Loomis and Brainard streets is the site chosen by North Central College trustees for the planned $60 million science center to be built in the next three years. A parking lot at Brainard and Van Buren will remain in place, but several homes owned by the college on the east end of the block are targeted for demolition to make room for the 120,000-square-foot building. | Susan Frick Carlman~Sun-Times Media

North Central College is due for a campus update, officials at the downtown Naperville institution say. Plans are well under way to make that happen, centered on a sprawling $60 million building focused on scientific disciplines.

The 120,000-square-foot science center, to be funded through a robust capital campaign that has generated more than $13.5 million so far, would furnish classroom and lab space for physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, math and computer science courses.

“In recent years, most science centers built on campuses like North Central College have ranged from 60,000 to 120,000 gross square feet,” the college’s 2010-20 Master Land Use Plan states.

Although Merner Fieldhouse and the Residence Hall/Recreation Center complex on the south end of campus are both significantly larger, the new building would be the largest structure on campus dedicated solely to academic uses.

North Central President Troy Hammond said the last time the college saw a bricks-and-mortar transformation on this scale was 1908, when the campus expanded beyond Old Main with the addition of the Carnegie Library, built with help from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, and Goldspohn Science Hall.

“This is really the opportunity for North Central to do a kind of a once-in-a century transformation of its academic facilities,” Hammond said this week.

According to Rick Spencer, vice president for institutional advancement, the fundraising effort is the largest undertaking of its kind in North Central’s 153-year history. Hammond said the board of trustees is expected to give the project a final nod sometime early next year, once its members are assured that the funds will be in hand by the time the first shovel of dirt is turned.

“That will be at either our February board meeting or our May board meeting next year,” Hammond said.

The target date for starting construction is June 2015, and the project is expected to take slightly more than two years to complete, he said.

Rearranging rooms

Plans call for the new building to replace classrooms being used today in the buildings now known as Goldspohn Hall and Carnegie Hall, as well as the Kroehler Science Center, built in 1969 — about 25,000 square feet in all, which will be put to other uses, Hammond said.

The size of the new facility has caught the attention of residents in the neighborhood surrounding the campus, part of the city’s historic district, which includes several college-owned houses targeted for demolition to make way for the building. Some of the residents have met with college representatives to address assorted issues. Craig Kiefer, president of the East Central Homeowners Association, said the sessions have been helpful.

“Somewhere around a year ago, the college notified us that they were initiating their pursuit of the science center, which was always on their list of priorities to do,” said Kiefer, adding that site options were posted online before the selection was made, and a presentation was made for the neighbors. “It’s a very large building. … There are some residents that are obviously very concerned about it, some residents that think it’s far too large.”

Of particular concern to some is the height of the proposed structure. Although the building plans suggest it will comply with the parameters of the college/university district designation and that no variances or special permits will be needed, Kiefer said some neighbors are wary of the appearance of the mechanicals that will be placed atop the building; they are not subject to the height limits in the city code.

“Those fans will require another 10 to 12 feet on top of the roof height,” he said, noting that preliminary drawings show a “faux roof structure” designed to shield those items from view. “I think that’s always been kind of an area of contention with commercial buildings, academic buildings — especially those that are adjacent to neighborhoods.”

Fruitful talk

All in all, Kiefer said, the discussions about the facility have been productive. He said renderings showing the proposed look of the building so far have been “generic,” but he’s optimistic that when the homeowners association meets with college representatives again in June, they will have additional designs to share that will show improvement.

“It did generate a lot of discussion and comments about the look and feel of the building, so I’m personally expecting that they’ll come up with some different options for the façade,” he said, acknowledging that no decision will prove pleasing to everyone. “But they have expressed a concern for trying to get neighborhood input and trying to accommodate that as much as possible.”

Hammond described the college’s relationship with the surrounding residents as “fantastic,” and said the interchange has been active.

“Quite frankly, the college has been with our neighbors for many, many years,” he said. “We’re listening as best we can. There absolutely have been opportunities to influence our thoughts as we’ve talked with our neighbors.”

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