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Committee Weighs Options for Hilles Space

A student sits studying alone in Hilles Library. Focus groups are continuing to brainstorm future possibilities for Hilles, hoping new improvements will add to undergraduate student life.
A student sits studying alone in Hilles Library. Focus groups are continuing to brainstorm future possibilities for Hilles, hoping new improvements will add to undergraduate student life.
By Joshua P. Rogers, Crimson Staff Writer

When the College announced last September that Hilles Library would be reduced to one floor after this school year, many undergraduates immediately voiced their displeasure.

The students’ protests arose despite how the changes to Hilles—originally planned as a cost-cutting measure—gave the administration the opportunity to convert more space to student social use.

“There is not a single square foot of new space for undergraduates in this space,” former Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 said soon after the announcement. “All of Hilles is undergraduate study space, and now it’s just being converted, while the library has again gotten out of the business of serving undergraduates.”

The month after the announcement, as student criticism of the plan persisted, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 formed a committee to analyze the use of space in Hilles and the Quadrangle Recreational Activities Center (QRAC).

The committee, which includes nine Faculty members and administrators, two representatives from the Office of Harvard Planning and Resources, an intern and five council representatives, is researching how best to use the three floors of space to meet student needs.

The continuing complaints from students—especially Quad residents—belie the wide range of possible improvements to student life that the Hilles renovations could produce.

Three focus groups run by the space committee over the past few weeks have generated a large number of student suggestions—some expected, others less orthodox.

“This opens up a valuable opportunity for student space, which is so badly needed here at Harvard,” said Michael J. Wu ’05, member of the Hilles-QRAC Space Committee.

The options presented by the committee and focus groups might be of interest not only to Quad residents, but to River residents and first-year students as well.

“We have talked to other colleges like Harvard. Some have had real failures and some have had real successes,” said Patricia O’Brien, Currier House Co-Master and chair of the Hilles-QRAC Space Committee.

The committee had originally intended to create exercise space with new cardiovascular machines. Since all the Houses will be renovating and improving their gyms this summer, though, that possibility has been eliminated, O’Brien said. The QRAC also had new exercise equipment installed this week.

While the Hilles building and décor do have admirers, student use will ultimately dictate the nature of the renovated Hilles.

“If it’s not aesthetically pleasing, or if it doesn’t have the right mix of amenities and activities, it will be underutilized,” O’Brien says.

IN AN IDEAL WORLD

The committee has repeatedly stressed the importance of access to food as a way to attract student traffic.

“Clearly there needs to be food in the building,” O’Brien says.

Committee members say they believe a coffee house would be a good way to provide food and entertainment to students. Other Ivy League schools have successfully introduced to their campuses Starbucks or student-run coffeehouses that feature open mics, karaoke and comedy.

The penthouse level of Hilles, which contains a small, basic kitchen, might be well-suited for conversion to a coffeehouse, the committee says.

To solve the food dilemma, the first focus group suggested the idea of an on-campus pub—a proposal the committee had not anticipated. The committee has agreed to look into this possibility as an option, but O’Brien has warned that this idea might not be viable.

In the past, Gross has called alcohol consumption on campus a “gigantic” problem.

Students in focus groups also expressed the desire for a pottery wheel.

Currently, students who need to use a wheel and kiln in the early morning hours go to Clay All Night and must walk back to their dormitories from across the river late at night.

Students in one focus group said the dangerous late-night commute to and from Clay All Night could be eliminated if there were a pottery wheel and kiln in the Quad.

O’Brien says the committee recognizes that some focus groups have included a disproportionate number of students with a unique goal that might not interest very many College students.

“In an attempt to correct for this, we are doing a number of things,” O’Brien writes in an e-mail. “First, we’re running numerous focus groups so that the dominant students at one are offset by the same at another. Second, we are looking for student input from other forums as well. We are using UC data (student requests for space and activity support), talking to athletic groups about their needs, polling clubs, and benchmarking the experiences of other schools.”

“Finally, the committee is noting when one individual or a few ‘hijack the discussion,’” O’Brien continues.

THE MORE MAINSTREAM

A reallocation of the Hilles space would be a conversion of a large portion of the newly available space into “mezzanine-like” space.

The new area would mimic the popular mezzanine area of the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC), which can support—or quickly be converted to support—a variety of activities.

“We’re told that the current space in the MAC is so popular, it could be booked 48 hours a day,” O’Brien says.

“Mezzanine-like” areas could be used for table tennis, martial arts and certain forms of dance which cannot use the dance studios in the renovated QRAC.

The Hilles space might also become the home of other performing groups.

The Morse Music Library, which is moving to Lamont, may now be replaced with live musicians.

The committee has placed high priority on the addition of practice rooms and, potentially, concert space, both of which are in high demand.

The cinema in the basement of Hilles has the space for a concert stage, but intensive soundproofing would have to be installed first.

“The residential neighborhood is sensitive to noise at night, and there will still be a floor of library space in the building,” O’Brien says.

More sedentary student groups could use the available space as well. Many organizations have requested offices and meeting space from University Hall. Student publications also require facilities to house equipment for layout and printing.

To accommodate these groups, the committee has considered clustering offices for currently homeless publications in the building and having those groups share a University-owned printing press.

Students in one focus group raised concerns that some of the offices might be used for storage rather than for student groups’ activities.

Another proposed Hilles-based solution to the student groups’ space crunch is the construction of a number of multipurpose conference rooms and offices. Multiple groups could reserve each room and when not using the offices, they could secure their belongings with an off-site storage service.

The committee is also considering creating additional student recreation space with comfortable furniture and a large-screen television featuring HBO, among other amenities.

“All the students became very excited when we mentioned adding an ATM to the hang-out space. There is not currently an ATM in the Quad,” O’Brien says.

The loss of library space also means the loss of study carrels. This could pose a problem for thesis writers, according to the members of one focus group.

“We have to decide whether to keep the carrels on the three floors of student space or to put them in the Houses,” O’Brien says.

ANOTHER KIND OF GROUP

Participation and attendance at the focus groups has not been as high as the committee hoped. At a focus group held at Leverett House last week, only one student attended.

“This project is meant to benefit all undergraduates, not only Quadlings. As such any students with ideas, suggestions or concerns should not hesitate to let the committee know,” Wu says.

The committee will make its recommendation to Gross by the end of the semester.

Architects and engineers will begin logistics and planning during the next school year, O’Brien says.

Structural renovations—which include the demolition of walls and upgrades to the antiquated air-conditioning system—will take place in the summer of 2005. The group aims to have the changes completed by 2005-2006.

The next focus group will meet tonight from 9-10 p.m. in Hilles.

Staff writer Joshua P. Rogers can be reached at jprogers@fas.harvard.edu.

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