It Takes a Partner

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How an unusual collaboration years in the making created the University Y Student Center.

Defined in part by the historical buildings of downtown Tacoma, the campus of UW Tacoma has become synonymous with an invigorated urban landscape. As the university and its student population grow, the needs of both continue to change and take on a new shape, one that is as much about collaboration and innovation as it is transformation.

The first floor of the University Y Student Center is a dedicated athletic facility. | Photos by Cody Char

With its doors set to open to students on January 1, 2015 (and with a grand opening celebration planned for January 6), the University Y Student Center stands as the next phase of UW Tacoma's development. The project, a collaborative effort between UW Tacoma and the YMCA of Pierce & Kitsap counties, has been in the works, in one form or another, since 2008. Back then, the athletic facility and collaborative space was merely a concept, an idea that sprang from the desire to fill the need for a dedicated student space on campus. 

Ed Mirecki, UW Tacoma’s dean of student engagement, says, “The concept goes back to 2008-2009, when student affairs commissioned a master facility study.”

The facility study brought in an outside consultant who made a number of recommendations as to what was needed on campus. The top recommendation in this report was a student union or a student space. It also recommended student health services and on-campus housing. “Since that plan in 2009,” Mirecki says, “we got student health services, we got on-campus housing, so the University Y Student Center was naturally next on our list.”

The idea of creating a student-oriented space was not without its specific challenges. Three years ago, when Cedric Howard, UW Tacoma’s vice chancellor of Student & Enrollment Services, began looking into how the university could create a space that addressed the needs outlined in the master facility study.

According to Mirecki, it was a matter of creating a project that would not only be affordable, but also provide the university with “the greatest space and resources” for the money.

One of the key issues was the question of what to do with Longshoremen’s Hall, the building that once stood on the site of the new University Y Student Center. Most of the questions around the nearly 60-year-old building concerned the feasibility of renovating or adding on to the existing structure. As the project expanded in scope and size, it was determined the hall would need to be torn down and a new structure built in its place. A new mural by artist Chelsea O’Sullivan memorializes Longshoremen’s Hall inside the University Y Student Center.

A mural honoring Longshoremen's Hall by artist Chelsea O'Sullivan.

One avenue Howard began exploring was the idea of attracting corporate partners like LA Fitness and Allstar Fitness to maintain and run the building after the university built it. Although those talks ultimately stalled, the university continued to look into the possibility of a partnership with other organizations.

“As the legend goes,” Mirecki says, it was two years ago that then-UW Tacoma Chancellor Debra Friedman walked into the Gig Harbor YMCA and saw something she could envision on the UW Tacoma campus. Friedman began a conversation with the YMCA and Bob Ecklund, president of YMCA of Pierce & Kitsap Counties, about making that happen. Friedman’s experience as chief administrator of Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus from 2008 to 2011 – during which a student union attached to an existing YMCA facility was being planned – gave her unique insight into making the collaboration happen. 

“The concept was brilliant in its simplicity,” says Mirecki. “It was a perfect match for what UW Tacoma was trying to achieve with this facility.”

Friedman was vocal in championing the idea of the University Y Student Center, but she wasn’t alone in making the plan come to fruition. Harlan Patterson, UW Tacoma vice chancellor of finance, as well as then-ASUWT President Elizabeth Perini, were also instrumental in the plan’s development.

“Harlan had to decide whether UW Tacoma could afford the project or not, and I think he’s been very creative and forward-thinking in terms of how the university manages its resources,” Mirecki says. “None of this would have happened without Harlan’s leadership on the whole project.”

Mirecki also notes the importance of student involvement in making the project a success. “Without the students getting behind it, this project wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” he says. “But Elizabeth and the other student leaders at the time used their voice to participate in the design and make key decisions about where the program was going.”

Once the wheels started turning, there was no looking back. UW Tacoma is now poised to celebrate a remarkably swift construction

“It’s just unheard of,” Mirecki says. “Not only in higher education, but also in the corporate world. You don’t just bring a facility from concept to reality in less than two years.”

The University Y Student Center event hall offers collaborative space for students to work.

But the accomplishment of constructing the University Y Student Center in such a short amount of time isn’t all that is unique about the situation. The partnership, between the two entities is also rare. UW Tacoma wholly owns the building, but the YMCA will maintain it as part of a tenant lease agreement that will undergo student approval every seven years.  

As Mirecki puts it, “It takes a partner” to make this happen. “I think Bob Ecklund has been a huge proponent and a huge champion of this project from the YMCA’s perspective.” The partnership places UW Tacoma in the position of being an innovator when it comes to answering the call of student need.

“Overall, it’s pretty remarkable,” Mirecki says, “and it’s the partnership with the YMCA that allowed this to happen.”

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Written by: 
Kevin Yeoman / December 30, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu