From mall to school hall

Struggling retail mall is converted into a full-service community college campus
August 11, 2010

When Grande Boulevard Mall opened its doors in 1981, its owners envisioned success by catering to Jacksonville, Fla.'s growing upscale neighborhoods. Located directly across from the city's first gated community, Deerwood Country Club, the upscale mall boasted mostly specialty stores, expensive shops and entertainment venues, including a nightclub, a comedy club and a British-style pub.

But the mall that advertised itself as "Not For Everyone," turned out to be "Not For Anyone," as the number of patrons, and later, tenants, quickly dwindled.

At that time, Florida Community College at Jacksonville (FCCJ) was utilizing training rooms in a nearby corporate building to teach night courses. In 1986, when the training rooms were converted into office space, the college was left to search for classroom space with plenty of parking. The mall was an ideal location.

"Because the mall was struggling to keep tenants, we were able to rent space for eight classrooms, and we later expanded to the other end of the mall," says Carol Spalding, president of FCCJ. "Its ample parking and perfect location made it the obvious choice."

FCCJ rented space until 1994, when it bought the 205,000-sq.-ft. mall for $5 million, considerably less than the building's original $18 million price tag. The mall's anchor store, Jacobson's, purchased its existing 150,000 square feet of space, and it remains today as the building's only retail occupant.

In 1996, FCCJ contracted architect Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates (TVS) of Atlanta and construction manager Brown & Root Construction of Clearwater, Fla., for renovation of the mall into the Deerwood Open Campus Center. TVS assembled the rest of the project team, including structural engineer Uzun Case Engineers, mechanical engineer BAA Mechanical Engineers and electrical engineer Roberds Consulting, all from Atlanta.

Socratic philosophy

Prior to the design phase, FCCJ hosted an educational retreat at Amelia Island in Jacksonville, where the building team learned about the college's philosophy of Socratic learning-learning through interaction and questioning-which would be reflected in the redesign. FCCJ also stressed that the campus be a learning center for almost every member of the community, regardless of age, occupation or education level.

"The campus was designed as a 'learning village' with space organized into neighborhoods and business districts connected by streets," says Robert Balke, principal in charge for TVS. Non-degree spaces such as business training, continuing education, a television studio and a multipurpose conference center are located on the first floor. Administration, staff, faculty and degree-student spaces are on the upper level.

TVS's design maximizes interaction among students, staff and faculty.

The two existing upper-level entrances were replaced with a more welcoming, centralized entrance. It incorporates warm colors, canopies and a fragmented ring of columns and lintels meant to symbolize Socratic learning.

Inside the main entrance is a one-stop business area with offices for administration and faculty. "We designed the building so that as students enter from the main parking lot, they have to go past enrollment, student services, registrar, faculty offices and a security desk-a place for them to quickly take care of school business or meet with a professor," says Spalding.

The administration/faculty area leads to the center court, containing vertical transportation, vending machines and several meeting areas. The centerpiece of the court is a new double staircase that leads to two 32-ft.-diameter Paideia rooms: circular classrooms with flexible furniture that promote interactive learning.

Two corridors off the center court lead east and west to the classrooms. Many storefront windows were retained to allow for casual observation and to reinforce the interactive learning environment.

Anchoring each second-floor corridor is a cluster of lab and classroom spaces referred to as "super pods." Each pod consists of a double ring of computers, learning resources and a tutor surrounded by labs and classrooms with flexible furniture. Bright hues and daylight entering through 10-by-10-ft. skylights in the center of each pod create attractive and inviting spaces.

"When students enter the ring of the pod, they have greater opportunity of running into an instructor, interacting with classmates or completing a homework assignment on one of many workstations connected to the FCCJ network," says Brian Sweny, project architect with TVS.

Elements of Jacksonville's environment were also incorporated into the design, adds Sweny. Trees and grass at the main entrance symbolize elements of the earth. A golden, spiral-patterned linoleum floor and red-pigmented walls in the administration/faculty area express the sun. And a blue, wave-patterned floor in the center court represents waves of the ocean.

A perfect fit, almost

Although the community college campus fit nicely into the existing mall layout-with large interior corridor spaces, escalators and elevators and a service tunnel that provides ADA-compliant access to the building-the project had its share of adaption challenges.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the mall was a mess: the entrances were not inviting, the tilt-up precast-concrete façade looked dirty and abandoned, and the interior was dim.

To brighten the space, TVS maximized natural light and vivid colors throughout. The east and west corridors were carpeted with red and blue hues, respectively, to ease wayfinding. Metal-halide fixtures replaced ineffective incandescent ones and the exterior façade was repainted a lighter hue.

"The whole mall had terrible natural lighting," adds Balke. "For instance, there were bulbous clouds of plaster draped below the skylight in the center court that intercepted the natural light. We stripped that away, trimmed the structure with sheet metal and painted the fireproofing a light color to brighten the space."

Structurally sound

Less than 20 years old, the building was structurally sound. However, a few modifications were required to meet design requirements. The most challenging modification, says James Farrar, project engineer with Uzun Case, involved removing a structural column in the television studio to create enough open space to accommodate large sets and mobile cameras.

"The building is set up on a 24-ft. column grid, and FCCJ wanted the studio to be twice that space with a column-free area, which required us to shore up and cut off a column and reinforce the beam to allow it to span 48 feet," Farrar adds. "By doubling the span of the beam, it essentially created four times the moment at the center of the beam, so a tensioned system was required."

Complying with the Florida building code for school occupancy also presented obstacles. For instance, exit requirements called for some corridors to be lengthened or widened and for the installation of additional doors. Adding exterior doors was a structural challenge, says Farrar.

"Because the tilt-up precast, panel façade is part of the structure and handles some of the load, cutting the 6-ft.-wide door sections out of the 8-ft.-wide panels left very little concrete material to carry the load," he says. "It required reinforcing by bolting structural C channels on either side of the precast panel."

Existing materials and systems were reused where possible. The wood flooring was refinished and all handrails were restored.

Many newly specified components are recyclable or made from recycled materials. For instance, the toilet partitions are made from recycled plastic products, while the carpet will be reclaimed by the manufacturer after its life for use in other nylon-based products.

Rooftop heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) units were replaced with a central unit. The fire-sprinkler system was reused and most of the plumbing infrastructure was retained. All plumbing fixtures, however, were replaced with fixtures featuring automatic shut-off to meet water-conservation requirements.

Moreover, each room and many public spaces were wired for access to the college network.

Sound financial decision

"The total hard cost for the land and construction was $17.7 million, or $86 per gross square foot," concludes Balke. "FCCJ achieved significant cost savings considering that, from a construction cost only, the state of Florida recommends a budget of $119 per gross square foot for multipurpose community college buildings."

"It's a fabulous building for a school," adds Spalding. "We would have never been able to build a school with these amenities for the amount of money we spent. Plus, the building was spared from occupying a landfill."