Numbers show 20% of NIU residential space vacant; building master plan in the works

Northern Illinois University staff talk plan for 2020 campus building master plan

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DeKALB – Fall enrollment at Northern Illinois University is at its lowest in 50 years, and as a result, 20% of residential spaces on campus are vacant, records show.

According to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, 18% fewer students are living in the six NIU residential halls being used as of the 2019 fall semester.

However, as with the Strategic Enrollment Master Plan to get enrollment to 18,000 students by 2023, another option is in the works: a campuswide building master plan to better assess space, capacity, use and future purposes of academic and residential halls on campus.

NIU is closing out the first semester of its lowest fall enrollment in 50 years. Despite the dip, freshmen enrollment has increased by 2% and a $20.9 million renovation of the Holmes Student Center unveiled in October showed new spaces for recreation, dining and socializing and studying. And a $23 million Northern Illinois Center for Sustainability was announced by former Gov. Bruce Rauner as part of the Illinois Innovation Network.

In some areas, underused spaces are being given new life, such as the former computer lab in the first floor of Neptune residence hall’s north wing, which now is used by the 111-member Esports Club, a competitive group of video gamers.

Conner Vagle, 21, of Roscoe, was one of those students to plug in and compete against other schools around the nation in video games. Vagle recently was hired as the full-time
esports general manager upon graduation.

“It allowed us to have a space that was dedicated to our needs,” Vagle said about moving the club to Neptune. “We’re really excited about the possibility of coming into it that we have been using that kind of flex space in one of the [residential halls].”

As with enrollment, the total number of students living in the residential halls has declined since 2013, records show. The campus has capacity to house 4,312 students in the six halls now operational, records show.

In 2013, the total occupancy was 4,207. Fall 2019 occupancy numbers show it now sits at 3,451.

Gilbert Hall, NIU’s oldest dormitory, was built in 1957, and renovated in 2013, said Daniel Pedersen, senior director of housing and residential services. He showed off a recently completed wing of Neptune Hall (built in 1955) on Monday, Neptune East and said the refresh that began in November 2018 was completed by August.

Beginning in fall 2017, the east wing of Neptune Hall was closed for renovations. The following year, Neptune West was closed. The final wing in the hall, Neptune North, is closed for the year as it undergoes the refresh.

“We redid flooring, brought in all new bunkable furniture, AC, recarpeted,” Pedersen said. He said bathrooms were also renovated at the request of students.

What to do about it

Sarah McGill, vice president and chief financial officer, has been tasked with co-leading the university’s campuswide building master plan, she said Monday. The plan is still in its infancy, she said, and no specifics have yet been identified.

“I think it’s going to lay out what we do, but I think there’s going to be piece of if that is really aspirational and forward-thinking,” McGill said. “Because 10 years in the future, when you think about where are with enrollment, where the city is, when you think about our research agenda, it’s really exciting to think about what buildings do you plan for, how do you think about uses, the land we have and where things are situated.”

McGill said the building master plan will take some direction from other strategic ideas that guide enrollment plans, such as the enrollment plan and the Vision Mission Values statement (to better define where the college wants to be in the future). Throughout the next year, McGill will work closely with co-leader executive vice president and NIU Provost Beth Ingram to meet with students, faculty, staff, community members and others to gather data, input on what they want to see on campus, and how they want to use the spaces they occupy.

Jeannine East, Esports Club project manager, oversaw the club’s move to Neptune North. East said finding new ways to rehabilitate older spaces is key to NIU’s future.

“I just feel like we all have to be aware of what we already have on campus before we try new things,” East said. “I mean, a coat of paint will make this place pop but it’s not necessary for our players to win their tournaments.”