Behind a wall of green plastic sheets that stretches from the Clemson House all the way to the eastern entrance of campus on State 93, the largest construction project in the history of Clemson University has just begun.
It's all about making campus a more inviting place for students to live, in a community that has seen a boom in privately developed off-campus student housing.
The $212.7 million Douthit Hills project not only will provide a home for more than 1,600 students, but it will include a new bookstore, a student center, restaurants and other retail establishments and a dining hall, plus other amenities.
"We want the students to feel comfortable and feel like they have a great place to work and study and recreate," said Gerald Vander Mey, Clemson's master planner. "So it's important that that whole environment is meeting expectations."
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"With the kind of competitive environment for housing we have, there needs to be some concern for the quality level of the university's housing stock and how it compares to other housing in the area,"
It's the biggest ever Clemson project in size – 80 acres with 650,000 square feet of buildings (the size of three Super Walmarts) – and in cost, Vander Mey said.
Douthit Hills isn't the only major construction project underway on the Clemson campus and other university properties. Another half dozen are in various stages, including another major student housing project replacing the old Johnstone Hall complex.
The student housing projects come at a time when the university is trying to catch up with its own growth and reach out into a private housing market that has been growing rapidly to provide enough beds for Clemson students.
Clemson has increased its enrollment by more than 5,000 over the past 10 years while reducing the number of on-campus housing units.
The average age of current student housing on campus is 40 years, Vander Mey said.
A recent study by the city of Clemson found current rental properties at 99 percent occupancy. Several hundred students were living in hotels last semester because apartments they had planned to rent hadn't been given the green light for occupancy by the city in time.
"We get phone calls every week in the planning and codes department saying, where can we live," Todd Steadman, the city's zoning and codes administrator, told the city's Board of Architectural Review in a meeting last fall.
The city has just approved plans for a privately developed five-story student housing/retail project in downtown Clemson that drew criticism from many long-time residents who felt the complex would destroy the small-town feel of College Avenue. That followed another large student housing project on the other end of College Avenue.
Douthit Hills will have all the perks and attractions that students would find in the downtown project, and more.
The portion closest to the main campus will include a mix of studio and two- and four-bedroom apartments in five- and six-story buildings that will house 970 upperclassmen.
On the opposite end of the project, will be a group of four-story buildings with traditional double-room dorms for 700 students in the Bridge to Clemson program. Those students start at Tri-County Technical College and transfer to Clemson in their sophomore year.
In between the two residential sections will be a new Student Center, which will include a dining facility, campus bookstore, a fitness center, restaurants and retail shops.
The university undertook a market study before seeking state approval for the project, and it showed it to b a needed addition, competitive in both amenities and cost with private housing options for students, Vander Mey said.
"We're certainly not undercutting anything but keeping with the market," he said.
The bonds for the project will be paid back through student housing fees and money generated by the various self-sustaining amenities, he said.
The cost to students for living at Douthit Hills hasn't been determined, but the cost of the paying for the project won't be shared by students in other university housing, said Douglas Hallenbeck, associate vice president for student affairs and executive director of university housing and dining.
"The idea is that we have students who want to live near or on campus, and with our proximity we believe that more students will live on campus," he said "It will be better for Clemson, better for the university."
He's not sure what impact the project may have on the rental housing market in the area.
"I think it just kind of spreads this out a little more and gives more students an opportunity to live closer to campus," he said.
Of some concern to residents of the adjacent residential areas is the traffic impact. The project includes student parking lots and will have access to the nearby neighborhood, but Hallenbeck said the roads will be configured so it will be convenient for residents but not convenient for people who may want to use it as a shortcut.
Martin Street will tie into State 93 to give access to the eight-building project, said John McEntire, Clemson's director of capital projects.
The building design went through several revisions during the process, redefining its scope and upgrading the materials to be used to satisfy state regulators, according to McEntire.
"We started out with more of a developer mentality," he said. State regulators with the Commission on Higher Education insisted on a more institutional design.
The end result was a project that will be built to last longer and cost less to maintain in the long-run, McEntire said.
The work is due to be completed in August 2018. Like all Clemson University construction projects in recent years, it will meet the environmental standards for LEED Silver certification, he said.
While Douthit Hills is aimed at upperclassmen and Bridge students, the $96 million Core Campus project will house primarily freshmen, sophomores and Honors students.
The 260,000-square-foot project will have beds for 700 students and includes a dining hall that seats up to 1,000, replacing facilities that are more than 60 years old.
It will include a "seminar and meeting space" for the Honors College.
A document presented to the university's Board of Trustees says the Core Campus facilities are designed to be "competitive with other top-tier universities" and "will aid in recruitment and retention of top students."
The project is expected to be complete in December 2016.
Other projects on campus will create new or expand existing academic facilities.
Steel girders are rising up behind the Cooper Library now for the new Watt Family Innovation Center, a $30.5 million building for teaching and research in science, technology and engineering.
The four-story, 66,000-square-foot facility will be home of the Freshman Engineering Program.
"Highly flexible, the building will have a robust infrastructure to serve the needs of an increasingly diverse student community and accommodate current and emerging technologies with minimal cost and effort," a document presented to the Board of Trustees says.
Completion is expected in December of this year. The nearby Freeman Hall addition will add 24,000 square feet of office and classroom space for Clemson's industrial engineering program.
The $10 million project is scheduled for completion in July.
Several athletic facilities projects are underway, also.
The 35-year-old suites at Memorial Stadium will be expanded and upgraded at a cost of $25 million. That should be finished by the start of the 2015 football season.
The third phase of the WestZone project at Memorial Stadium will add an "Oculus" that is designed to provide a signature vertical element to the structure and improve the flow of foot traffic through the facility. Completion: July.
An $8.9 million addition at Kingsmore Stadium will provide locker rooms, a player's dining area and other amenities for the baseball team. The work is scheduled to be completed in April.
All athletic facilities projects are paid for out of donations and revenue generated by athletic programs.
Off campus projects
Two major capital projects are underway off campus.
The Greenwood Genetics Center, in Greenwood, will be a 17,000-square-foot research and education space aimed at recruiting companies engaged in human diagnostics, central nervous system research in cognitive development, autism, birth defects and other genetic studies.
At a cost of $6.5 million, it is expected to be open for business in February 2016.
The Zucker Famiily Graduate Education Center, in North Charleston, is intended to be the core of Clemson's Restoration Institute. Students there will do research in renewable energy and composite materials.
The $23.5 million building is scheduled for completion in February 2016.