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Growing pains in Vermont

Vast student center in Burlington gives rise to debate about scale

BURLINGTON, Vt. - This city, the largest in Vermont, has always taken unusual pride in its smallness.

Home to not quite 40,000 people and a perennial favorite in "best small city" rankings of national magazines, Burlington is dwarfed by the natural grandness that surrounds it: the wide, blue view of Lake Champlain; the hazy embrace of the Green Mountains. People here are deeply attached to that contrast and have long preferred to keep their man-made landmarks to a manageable scale.

So when the University of Vermont opened its huge new student center last month, a sprawling, four-story monolith of brick and steel built alongside Main Street on the hill that functions as the gateway to the city, it was met with considerable unease.

University officials have hailed the 4-acre, $61 million complex as a symbol of growth and revitalization at the smallest public flagship campus in the country. But residents have called the structure an eyesore, a blight, a blunder, and "an architect's ego gone wild" in letters to the local newspaper, the Bur lington Free Press. Students are also debating the merits of the building, and some say they are uncomfortable with its size, 186,000 square feet, which includes ample space for student clubs and activities; a food court with sushi, burritos, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream; a bank; a copy shop; a bookstore; a ballroom; and a game room with pool tables, lounge chairs and a fireplace.

Across Vermont, residents have struggled to reconcile the need for economic development with the changes wrought by growth upon their treasured rural landscape, itself a vital engine for the tourism industry. Towns have formed committees to consider limiting the size of "big box" stores, while other officials brainstorm ways to entice new employers. In Burlington, an ongoing overhaul of city zoning rules is designed in part to help businesses locate downtown, and includes proposed "height bonuses" that would allow buildings to exceed six stories in exchange for amenities such as public art or parking.

Growth downtown or at the university, one of the state's largest employers, is good for the city if it is managed well, said Mayor Bob Kiss. The university has added 200 staff jobs and 90 new faculty as part of its recent growth campaign, officials said.

"People like Burlington the way it is, and we don't want to open the door to untrammeled development, but I think there is room for growth downtown, and for more taller buildings that might be six, seven, eight stories," he said.

Students shooting pool at the Dudley H. Davis Center last week said Vermonters are more likely to criticize the building while students from outside the state have been quick to embrace it.

"Being from Burlington, I think it takes away from the charming aesthetic of the city, to have this monstrosity where you used to be able to see more of the lake and the city," said senior Andrew Mullineaux, 21, a biology major. "It's a walkable, liveable city, and this gives the idea that we're not staying that course - like now it's OK to build giant buildings here."

The mixed reaction to the Davis Center also reflects underlying anxiety about rapid change at the university under its president, Daniel Fogel, who charged into office five years ago with an ambitious plan to remake its aging campus and revive its reputation. His push to add almost 2,000 students by 2012 has nearly been achieved, years ahead of schedule. Applications have more than doubled since 2000. This fall, the undergraduate enrollment of 9,450 is the largest in the history of the school.

To accommodate the influx, the university has launched a building boom. Trustees voted Friday to move forward with construction of a $55 million, 96,000 square-foot Plant Science Center, also on Main Street, to house agriculture programs. Leaders have added more than 1,000 student beds by building dorms, renovating existing housing, and acquiring residence halls from another college that closed. But demand has outpaced supply, and this fall, more than 400 students are living in double rooms converted to triples.

The new student center, the most expensive building ever raised by the university, is of particular importance, the president said, because it gives the evolving campus a clear center and a lively social hub that it had lacked.

"It is undeniably a big building, but it's just the right size on the other hand," Fogel said in an interview. "It's a case of form following function. We engaged in an extensive process of study, with consultants, and deep analysis of campus needs, and it precisely filled the needs we had."

In an age when college students demand the comforts of home, recruiters see modern student centers with pubs, ATMs, and Internet cafes as an important way to attract applicants. But the scale of such buildings varies widely from campus to campus, and their setting seems to shape public reaction.

When the University of Massachusetts at Boston, with 13,000 students, spent $75 million to build a 330,000-square-foot student center on the edge of Dorchester Bay three years ago, the commuter school heard little criticism of the glass-and-limestone behemoth. But at tiny Williams College in the Berkshires earlier this year, some of the 2,000 students judged the new Paresky Center too big and flashy at 72,000 square feet.

At the University of Vermont, officials note that the Davis Center is not the biggest building on campus. The gym and the main building at the medical school, both built before 1965, are slightly larger.

It is the prominent site of the structure that has driven the strong reaction to it, say critics of the building and college officials.

"Maybe if it was back farther, it would be OK, but you come up over the hill and that's all there is, a big building," said Colleen Lane, 70, a South Burlington resident. "I was born in Burlington, so I'm prejudiced, but to me it's just out of place. Our buildings are not that high."

The old student center, housed in an architecturally significant but sedate 19th-century library, was popular for napping, students say. The Davis Center, by contrast, hummed with activity one night last week, while the smells of fresh paint and new carpets hung in the air. In the pub, students in T-shirts and sneakers huddled around tables, eating chicken wings and tofu and competing for prizes in a trivia contest, while upstairs, sorority members in high heels and dresses streamed through the corridors carrying balloons and props to a rush event.

Students said they like the building's central location, which makes it ideal for meeting friends. They appreciate its environmentally conscious design, expected to cut heating and cooling costs by half, and the fact that it was built with Vermont-made bricks and slate.

"I've heard some people say it's too big, but I think it's the perfect size," said Lauren Conroy, a freshman from Bethel, Maine.

For some, the sheer size of the place holds mystique. Although it is only the fourth-largest structure on campus, it is rumored among students that the building is the biggest in Vermont.

"I don't know if it's true," said Michael Leelman, a sophomore from Lexington, Mass., "but it sounds kind of cool."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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