North Hall and Pedestrian Underpass at Montgomery County Community College

North Hall and Pedestrian Underpass at Montgomery County Community College

Expanding a campus, making downtown accessible

An art gallery with exposed brick walls displays works by faculty, students, alumni and local artists and has become a gathering spot for both the college and broader community.

Montgomery County Community College (Pa.) and the broader community benefit from adaptive reuse.

  • FUNCTION: North Hall houses classrooms, a computer lab, an art gallery, studios, offices, a GED program, and a workplace education and training center. A pedestrian underpass connects North and South Halls, which make up West Campus, and offers public walking access between the riverfront and downtown.
  • CHALLENGES: Since 1996, MCCC has had two campuses, its original one in Blue Bell and its newer one 28 miles away in downtown Pottstown, a former manufacturing-based community. Pottstown offered mainly general ed courses and students finished their degree programs in Blue Bell. But many were not persisting, says President Karen Stout. The college sought to help revitalize Pottstown and begin offering full programs there.

South Hall’s 90,000 square feet didn’t allow for such ambitions, and the college set its sights on an historic building nearby. Now known as North Hall, it was a former knitting mill, brewery, and shoe polish factory—which had some environmental clean-up issues and needed a full rehabilitation. It also happened to be separated from South Hall by a freight line, so students would have to travel a mile around a borough block to reach it.

Or did they? “In the early 1920s there was a real, workable underpass to connect it to downtown—but it had been filled in,” says Stout. It made sense to turn it into a structurally sound, handicap-accessible pedestrian underpass. There were some funds for such a project, but a private developer, with access to alternative funding and the ability to complete the project quickly, was the logical choice.

  • SOLUTION: MCCC partnered with Vesper Property Group, which purchased the building. Faculty and student affairs reps provided input on a design plan that preserves much of the original wood and brick. “We tried to keep the history and character in place,” Stout says.

The first of two phases involved a first floor renovation and reconstruction of the underpass. The college could trigger the second floor renovation within the first five years, and officials did so within two. That floor was completed just in time to accommodate an 18 percent campus enrollment increase this past fall, says Stout.

North Hall’s 50,000 square feet allow West Campus to offer most of Blue Bell’s degree programs, plus additional degree and certificate programs. Faculty have open-air, cubicle-style offices and are integrated rather than seated by department. Stout, who splits her time between campuses, says they like that arrangement. “I think it’s triggered a camaraderie there.” Students are staying on campus longer and can often be found in local restaurants and volunteering downtown. “The community is so appreciative,” she notes.

  • COST: $9 million ($100,000 for acquisition, $5 million for phase one, and $4 million for phase two); MCCC’s lease is $800,000 per fiscal year, with an option to buy in 2014.
  • TIMELINE: Phase one finished in 2006, phase two in August 2009.
  • PROJECT TEAM: Philadelphia-based Vesper Property Group; Doylestown, Pa.-based Ralph Curtis Fey, Architects

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