Hometown U: Campus transformations continue at UAA

Kathleen McCoy

On Monday, UAA welcomes the class of 2018 onto a campus that is rapidly transforming. This column offers a construction update (the dust won’t settle soon) and shares a quick snapshot of the 1,338 freshman Seawolves.

The obvious symbol of change is the new $109 million sports arena, the Alaska Airlines Center. It sits on 20 acres just east of Providence Alaska Medical Center and is now home to 11 of UAA’s 12 sports teams. Only hockey remains with the ice in the Wells Fargo Sports Complex (new in 1978); they get a locker-room facelift next year.

The AAC houses a 5,600-seat main gym and concert arena available for community and campus events. The Great Alaska Shootout will move here; the first of many future UAA graduations will be there in December. AAC will share parking with Providence beyond its own 800-car lot at the arena’s south entrance.

The first athletic event -- a volleyball tournament -- begins on ribbon-cutting day, Sept. 5. The Anchorage community gets a 10-day grand opening look-see Sept. 5-14, including bluesy rockers Alabama Shakes in concert, a local music festival and an Alaska food-tasting charity benefit.

More fun for foodies: an Oct. 1 opening of the upscale and high-in-the-sky Varsity Sports Grille restaurant. It overlooks the main gym from two levels up and includes a 90-seat dining balcony with a view of the Chugach Mountains. Chef Matt Little Dog crafts the menu here and at the Muse in the Anchorage Museum. Yes, there’s beer and wine.

This facility is all bright, shiny and new. More importantly, it’s done. Not so with many other transformations on campus now and into the future.

A ride along UAA Drive between Northern Lights Boulevard and Providence Drive shows a new break in the trees to the west. The foundation for a 485-space parking garage will go in this year. That development unseated two temporary buildings tucked into the woods; they’re now moved east across UAA Drive. It also mandated that Mallard Drive curving west off UAA Drive be straightened. That backdoor entrance to west campus is closed now, but project managers anticipate temporary use from October through May.

Speaking of engineering buildings, the newest one going up along Providence Drive is due to open a year from now. Think of it as a giant lab built for future engineers: All of the building’s mechanical systems -- heating, ventilation, cooling -- are on display for students to study. A reinforced ground floor is designed for testing all manner of student engineering designs; read that as a safe place to break stuff. An ice-free sidewalk, based on the design of Joey Yang, an engineering professor at UAA, will lead to the front entrance.

One highly visible campus addition, an elevated suspension footbridge crossing over Providence Drive to the two-year-old Health Sciences Building, will open next summer. Curving steel arches are scheduled for installation this December; Providence Drive will close completely during part of the 2014 winter holiday break while workers install them. Local hospital traffic will use alternate routes.

But that’s not it for engineering upgrades. As soon as contractors finish the new building, they’ll move to the old one tucked in the trees at the west corner of UAA and Providence drives. They’ll gut that building and redo its classrooms and labs and add an elevated walkway to the new parking garage.

These three buildings are designed to accommodate 1,200 engineering students, four times the number UAA served back in 2000. ANSEP, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, will take over the Fireside Café near the Arts Building as it expands its middle-school math and science academic camps to a year-round program.

I mentioned the 2014 winter holiday break; that’s also move-back-in time for staff and students after a yearlong redo of Beatrice McDonald Hall, first opened in 1968 as part of the original Anchorage Community College campus. A two-story glass atrium will lighten the interior. Ten new labs, an herbarium and a lecture hall fill the space. Anthropology and geology departments come home, and the Alaska Natural Heritage Program moves in.

On-deck construction projects include a multi-million dollar phased renovation of  Cuddy Hall, prompted by a $1 million Princess-Holland America gift last year. And UAA’s No. 1 capital project request for the next legislative session? Funding for a second health sciences building to go up near the one that opened in 2011. 

Like I said, don’t expect the dust to settle soon. Now about those freshman ...

The class is 88 percent Alaska residents and has an incoming GPA of 3.06.  The ratio between women and men shifted 1 percent in favor of the smaller group -- guys: 58 percent to 42 percent. Alaska Natives are the second largest student group. East, Dimond and Service high schools sent the most students to UAA this year. Canadians outnumber all other foreign students, followed by South Koreans and Russians. Fifteen countries, from Netherlands to Saudi Arabia to Burma to Vietnam, sent UAA one student each.

Welcome back to campus, everybody.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.