With upgrades, city can handle college

February 16, 2005

Bulletin Staff Writer

Uptown Martinsville could accommodate a new college that would educate about 1,000 students, but it would be necessary to renovate buildings and blend the school among businesses already there, according to a design consultant.

"We could have a very interesting campus" spread through uptown and adjacent areas, said Ray Gindroz, chairman of Urban Design Associates. The Harvest Foundation hired the firm to examine possible locations for the New College of Virginia, as the project now is called.

Gindroz presented preliminary study results to local government and business leaders Tuesday. More study, along with efforts to gauge public opinion, is planned over the coming months.

A 1,000-student college would need about 120,000 square feet of space for offices, classrooms and laboratories, as well as about 500 dormitory rooms, 500 apartments and 35,000 square feet of recreation space, Gindroz said.

He envisions the former Tultex Corp. plant on Commonwealth Boulevard -- now called Commonwealth Centre -- as the college's main campus.

"You could put the entire academic program in this building," Gindroz said, referring to the size of the building.

Yet he recommended using it only as an anchor campus. He indicated the building would need a lot of renovation, including windows, to make it look more like a college and less like a factory.

A city-owned site on the western edge of uptown, along with the former Pannill Knitting plant at the corner of Market Street and Cleveland Avenue, also could be used by the college, perhaps in later phases of development, the study shows.

Other uptown buildings also could be renovated for college classroom or office space and student housing, Gindroz said. They include the former Holt's, C.P. Kearfott's and mercantile buildings on East Main Street, the study shows.

All of the targeted buildings are structurally sound but need alterations to meet fire and safety codes, the study says.

Gindroz did not discuss how much renovations might cost. Possible sources of public funding are federal and state grants, loans and bonds. Private sources include the Community Reinvestment Act, federal tax credit programs, developers and entrepreneurs, the study states.

The ultimate goal would be for students to not have to travel far to go to class. A pedestrian bridge across Commonwealth Boulevard would allow students living uptown to walk to the Commonwealth Centre in five minutes, Gindroz said, and would prevent traffic congestion.

"We don't want people driving from one part of the campus to another," he added.

Most students would have cars, though, so the college would need parking for 750 to 1,000 vehicles, the study estimated. Gindroz said he thinks there is enough parking available uptown to accommodate that figure, but vacant space could be turned into parking lots, if necessary.

Still, students might have trouble finding their way around Martinsville, and one-way streets uptown might need to be made two-way, Gindroz said.

"One-way streets were the invention of the devil," he said. "They get in the way" of normal traffic flow.

"Every time I come into Martinsville I get disoriented," Gindroz added, referring to the way the area's highway network is organized.

Blending a college into a business district is not a new concept. Gindroz said that Oxford University in England and the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, which has more than 6,000 students, were similarly developed.

If NCV is established, uptown streets eventually would be lined with a mix of academic, commercial, residential and civic uses, the study shows.

"Students will walk back and forth between the campus facilities, adding much-needed life to uptown," the study states. "They will provide a market for restaurants, coffee shops, service stores and other retail uses that have disappeared from uptown."

"Young people add more to the sense of life" in a community than older people do, Gindroz said.

Officials have said that a college would strengthen the Martinsville-Henry County economy. Gindroz recalled that when Tidewater Community College moved into downtown Norfolk, bringing with it about 6,000 students, many new stores and restaurants opened downtown.

In establishing the college, Gindroz said, those involved "should build upon the assets of the town," such as the number of unoccupied buildings uptown, and the school should become part of Martinsville's image.

Dr. Ronald Carrier, a former president of James Madison University who is directing local efforts to bring the college to fruition, described it as a "nontraditional college." Not only would it be enveloped around uptown, but also allow students to earn degrees in 28 months instead of four years. Carrier said a final architectural report should be ready by midsummer.

In the meantime, Gindroz said, the study process will include open meetings in which people can say what they like and dislike like about Martinsville. That will enable the city's strengths and weaknesses to be analyzed, he said.

Gov. Mark Warner included $1.5 million in this year's proposed state budget to establish the college. But the House Appropriations Committee cut all but $100,000. The Senate backed full funding.

A conference committee of House and Senate members is to resolve the difference before the General Assembly adjourns Feb. 26. Carrier is optimistic that the college will get a lot more than $100,000.

"The Senate is for it, and the governor is for it," he said. "Two out of three is pretty strong."

He encouraged area residents to contact conference committee members and voice support for the college.

"This project is so critical to Martinsville and the Southside, we've just got to keep pursuing it," Carrier said.

Gindroz called the new college "one of the most exciting projects I've ever worked on."


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