FORT WORTH -- Simple lines, gray walls, sleek metallic finishes and windows that glitter in the distance give Tarrant County College's new downtown campus a modern feel.
Picture also a waterway that sparkles as it flows alongside students walking in a sunken plaza that runs below Belknap Street toward the Trinity River. Newly planted trees line the plaza, which includes a welcome center, complete with coffee shop, that stretches up toward busy streets. The waterway moves north to an outdoor classroom complemented by a waterfall that whispers in the background.
"It's one of the most high-end higher education buildings I've ever seen," said Lee Hill, president of the American Institute of Architects' Fort Worth chapter. "I think it is very nice."
With a price tag of about $185 million, the Trinity River East Campus continues to be a conversation topic.
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Critics have questioned TCC's spending, describing it as lavish. From the project's planning stages through its construction, some wondered whether such a modern-looking complex would fit in with nearby historical structures, notably the Victorian-era Tarrant County Courthouse.
Still others wondered why TCC opted to build a plaza below street level, which some architects still doubt will become the public space the college envisions.
College leaders hope the criticisms will be largely put to rest once classes begin Aug. 29 at the 148,000-square-foot facility on Belknap. Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver, Canada, is the architect/engineer of record for the basic building and site improvements, while Gideon Toal of Fort Worth is credited with designing the interiors and the central plant facility.
The campus will be the center for healthcare professions for TCC's Trinity River Campus, to the west. Students will be able to attend a state-of-the art centralized facility -- complete with classrooms that resemble hospital rooms. The sunken plaza connects the campus to downtown, allowing pedestrians to go under Belknap.
"I was told it was not safe," TCC Trustee Louise Appleman said. "I was told that it was going to be dark and dank. None of that is true."
Appleman said she envisions a plaza in which students, downtown workers and jurors will congregate. She said county employees and jurors already use a restaurant at the Trinity River Campus (the former RadioShack headquarters).
"I think that will happen in this space when the weather is nice," Appleman said. "People will enjoy the openness of it."
Several area architects see the project's effort to draw people to the Trinity as a plus.
"Most major cities were established near water, so reviving that connection is important," said Joe Self of the architecture and design firm FIRM817.
Self said the new campus reconnects the city to the river and is the latest in a series of area projects that "celebrate" water, including Heritage Plaza, the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and the Fort Worth Water Gardens.
The buildings' tilting granite evokes geologic formations, Self said, and the gray stone brings a sense of durability while also reducing glare. But he also notes that the glass guardrails could be prone to breaking and says more furniture and landscaping near the streets would enhance the project.
If the campus doesn't look historic, that's OK, Self said.
"Every city needs more than one voice and more than one vision to make it a great city," he said.
John Roberts, a Fort Worth architect, said the campus is taking shape better than he initially envisioned. The complex is a modern structure with simple lines and is minimalist. But he still wonders whether people will be drawn to the sunken plaza.
"They tend to isolate activities from the street," Roberts said. "They are separated by the grade. You have to make an effort to go down there. If you have to make an effort, you are less likely to go there."
The Water Gardens, which opened in 1974 at the opposite end of downtown and are also below street level, raised some of the same concerns.
In June 2007, a three-day workshop addressed concerns that downtown developer Ed Bass, business leaders and city leaders had about the plaza. Donald Gatzke, dean of architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, participated in those discussions.
"I still think it is something of a problem," Gatzke said. "I don't think it is going to be a successful public space in the way we would think of public squares, piazzas."
Gatzke said that unlike sunken plazas, street-level plazas allow people to look out and see other people. They are open to see street vendors and concerts. Pedestrians can also cut diagonally across them.
Despite that issue, Gatzke said, the new buildings are handsome.
Some people have criticized the feel of the campus, saying it appears cold. Hill said that some of the sustainability features account for its simple look. For example, the buildings have metal sun-shading screens and glass, which enhance natural lighting.
"It's all about bringing the outside to the inside and the inside to the outside," Hill said, adding that once students are inside, the feel will change again.
Hill said he finds the complex refreshing.
"It's looking to the future instead of behind us," he said. "Fort Worth has a tendency to look behind us."
Pricey in comparison
The Trinity River East project is budgeted at $203 million, which Trustee O.K. Carter calls excessive. At one point, the cost was estimated at about $1,500 per square foot. TCC said the actual cost per square foot could not be made available last week.
But $1,500 per square foot would far exceed the prices of many other community college and university buildings, data show.
In 2010, colleges spent $11 billion on new buildings, additions and renovations, according to Paul Abramson, who wrote The 2011 College Construction Report. The median cost for academic buildings is about $339 per square foot, the report states.
The TCC cost is also high compared with similar college medical facilities.
The Dallas County Community College District added several complexes as part of a $450 million bond package approved in 2004. Included was a 147,000-square-foot facility with radiology labs, a hospital setting with computerized manikins and a simulated ambulance.
That facility's total construction cost $39.6 million, or about $270 per square foot, said Steve Park, executive director of the Dallas college district's bond program management team.
Carter, who ran for his post as an open critic of the Trinity River East project, said that the community has paid for a "terrific building" and that it will likely become the best medical facility of its type in the country. He also said it probably has the best view of any college in the country, aside from Pepperdine University in California.
But he also said, "It is obvious that the facility is excessive in terms of cost and style. It's really excessive."
TCC began collecting a special tax to build the campus in 2002. In October 2004, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the north bank of the Trinity.
The TCC downtown campus was proposed in the early 2000s by then-Chancellor Leonardo de la Garza. In its original vision, the campus spanned the Trinity. But construction was delayed as the cost of building on river levees soared after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The hurricane also brought increased scrutiny from the Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps required design and engineering work before TCC could build on the levee, and that raised costs and delayed construction.
In 2008, as controversy mounted along with the costs, TCC scrapped its plan to build on both sides of the Trinity and bought the RadioShack riverfront complex, now known as the Trinity River Campus.
TCC leaders have promised to keep the construction project at $203 million and said efforts have been made to trim costs wherever possible, including utilities, contracting, construction and design. As of June 30, the price was $185.4 million, said Nina Petty, TCC's vice chancellor for real estate and facilities.
Appleman said that in the end, the community will embrace the complex, which occupies about 3.7 acres on both sides of Belknap.
"It's very functional," she said. "I think it is something the community will be very proud of."
But some leaders reserved judgment.
"Mr. Bass prefers not to comment at this time. He feels the building and plaza will speak for themselves over time," said his spokeswoman, Terrell Lamb.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a longtime critic of the design, knows it's here to stay.
"It is what it is," Whitley said. "I'm going to support it and do whatever we can to make it successful."
Opening is near
In recent weeks, final work was under way at the campus. Workers installed wiring, and computerized manikins were placed in classrooms that look like hospital rooms. Equipment and staff will move in Wednesday, said Tahita Fulkerson, president of the Trinity River Campus. The construction fences are expected to be down by Aug. 25, according to TCC. The plaza should be open to the public by then, too.
"It is parklike," Fulkerson said. "We've added trees, a water feature. We have responded to the community's need for healthcare professionals."
Students in nursing, radiology, sonography and respiratory care will take classes in the complex. Windows in the 110-seat main auditorium overlook the Trinity.
Officials said the new campus will have about 750 unduplicated students enrolled in the fall semester and about 55 faculty members and adjuncts. TCC plans to add more night classes and a weekend program in health fields.
All programs have both first- and second-year students, according to college officials. The campus is offering 77 face-to-face classes. But students will also be in and out of the building if they participate in any of five health-related distance-learning classes or 91 health-related clinicals. Clinical participants meet for a portion of the semester at Trinity River East, and the distance-learning students will take tests on campus.
Nursing student John Combs said the new campus looks fantastic.
"The new building is better than any I had at my university," said Combs, 39, who earned a degree in construction management at Missouri State University. "I think what it is is state-of-the art, and that is what we need.
"The more attractive the facility, the better people you will attract for your program," he said. "A lot of people look at that and say, 'Man I want to go to school there.'"
Staff writer Bill Hanna contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675