Biz View: The story of the steam plant and the 21st century university

The steam plant on Washington State University’s campus is seen from Spring Street.

When construction on College Avenue on the campus of Washington State University started last spring, there was a collective sigh of relief. The digging seemed extensive enough to suggest the entire hill, road and buildings alike might be under revision. It was hard not to get excited.

But, alas, the construction was limited to repairs of underground utilities. Soon, everything was patched up, concrete and asphalt back in place. During those months, when hopes ran high, it was difficult not to build in one's eye an image of a more attractive hill, of stepped gardens, or paved and well-landscaped winding paths, perhaps a gondola system that could empower those less able to travel up and down the hill.

In good part, what makes the hill exceptionally important is the way it sits between town and gown, potentially serving the two and advancing the public mission of a land grant institution, which today is more relevant than ever. The role of the university is such that it must act as an extension for itself, accommodating a world hungry for knowledge, not necessarily for knowledge's sake but out of a need to stay relevant. As an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicated: "Colleges are no longer singularly committed to knowledge production for the sake of it." Instead, they have shifted focus "toward helping learners use knowledge" to "innovate."

Yes, to innovate, but also to keep up with a world that seems to change at a rate never quite experienced before, each day seeing a new tool and with it a new way of communicating and doing business. Indeed, the need to return to school has never been as vigorous as it is now, not to restart one's career but to adapt to a new market dynamic.

One building on College Avenue could jump-start that need. The steam plant is an old and underutilized structure, yet a gem in its own right, less because of architectural merit and more because it represents a critical link to the past, important to the image of a university as an authentic establishment. For years, it used to receive coal from Utah to heat the campus, but since 2004, it has been largely decommissioned in favor of a more modern and sustainable plant across campus. Current plans for it involve repurposing it into a "clean energy center in connection with the projects being developed for the smart grid electrical management work."

All well and good, but it would be too bad if the plant remained in that capacity alone. Given its location, it could help serve the cause of the 21st century university, linking academics to society and vice versa. It is stylistically neutral and can accommodate pretty much anything we decide to put in it, such as open maker spaces, equipped with the latest robotic technologies, including 3D printers and virtual reality goggles. Other functions could include blending studios and labs and advancing the complex and seemingly contradictory interdisciplinary needs of the modern workplace.

Lodging, restaurants and galleries could complete the picture, making returning to school possible and memorable, for the traditional student but also for those who are in town for a different purpose, attending a game or a conference and now enrolling in a class to learn new skills.

Resurrecting the steam plant will inevitably do the same for the hill, currently a jumble of broken asphalt and derelict landscapes, awful to look at and even more awful to climb. The ramshackle storage building to the right and the barren parking lot to the left will necessarily have to come under scrutiny, perhaps now transformed to accommodate civic functions befitting of an active democracy. If so, the new intersection could serve as a catalyst connecting students with locals and generally helping Pullman become more of a well-rounded community, not to mention more year round more financially integrated.

Money, of course, is always an issue. Already, $12 million has been estimated to fix the plant, not including any of the suggestions made here. A tall order indeed, but we have to spend money to make money, and it is high time that we turn this issue around. Otherwise, we could risk looking out of touch.

Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.

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