When students return to campus for the fall semester at the University of Texas at Tyler, they’ll see the first portions of the college’s campus master plan coming to fruition.
Crews are working to have the college’s new Patriot Plaza open by the time students begin arriving on campus later this month. The plaza is situated in what was once the University Center visitor parking lot.
Gone are the parking spaces, replaced by a 500-seat amphitheater and green space, stretching from the Herrington Patriot Center to the college’s bell tower.
UT Tyler President Dr. Michael Tidwell said the creation of the plaza is intended to offer students the full college experience, as well as to create a gathering space for the UT Tyler community and the community at large.
Tidwell said that while the campus has beautiful green spaces, it lacks an area reminiscent of the “quad” atmosphere students envision, where hundreds of people can gather for recreation, concerts and more.
While the idea has received pushback from some students, Tidwell is confident that once they see the benefits offered by the plaza, they’ll come to appreciate the redesign.
“UT Tyler is a growing and thriving institution. We realize construction on campus is not always pleasant,” Tidwell said. “I think when the community gets to see the benefits, they’ll (love it.)”
The college has big plans for the plaza, ranging from student activities to concerts through a Cowan Center “After Dark” series and eventually a single commencement ceremony.
When a new commencement portion of the college’s website went live in July, it was met with dissatisfaction from students worried that the area could not accommodate all of their families, that parking would be inadequate and the weather too unpredictable for a memorable graduation day.
Tidwell said commencement will continue in Cowan this fall, but likely move to the plaza next May. Part of the reason for the move is that the college’s record enrollment has led to four separate commencement ceremonies each semester, and some have already grown too large for the Cowan Center’s 2,000 seats. Tidwell wants families to be present, not just watching a livestream from a separate room if they are unable to get tickets.
The college believes Patriot Plaza is that space. The “bowl,” as the circular area between the amphitheater seating and the UC is called, can accommodate up to 2,000 graduates. In addition to the 500 seats built into the green space, the college said there is enough room to bring inseating to easily accommodate up to 8,000 attendees.
With the way the plaza is set up, that would mean the audience is seated in the amphitheater and to the northwest, facing the green space between the UC and the HPC buildings.
“At Cowan that wasn’t the case. Folks had to go to overflow rooms,” Tidwell said. “In this space you have that ability (to be there) and have a clear view of your student graduating.”
The college is working on inclement weather plans, and will likely adjust timing for heat or rain with the option to move back to indoor ceremonies if weather is expected to be especially bad.
The remaining parking around the plaza will be transitioned into handicap spaces, and Tidwell said that all points on the campus, once the redesign is complete, will be within a 15-minute walking radius of the plaza.
Tidwell said while he understands frustration with parking, the campus has more spots than it did when he came on board in 2017, with the addition of a parking garage near the Soules College of Business. At that time the college had 3,877 parking spots; after completion of Patriot Plaza it will have 4,242.
In the college’s master plan, the lots between the alumni house and Cowan Center eventually will become a parking garage as well.
UT Tyler has traditionally been a commuter campus, but over the past decade as the college has grown two nearby apartment complexes have been purchased for student housing and there are plans to build more dorms as part of the campus master plan.
Tidwell said the goal is to continue to serve the commuter population, while creating an atmosphere that enables more students to live on campus and thrive. He said the university’s data shows that when students are on campus, they’re more likely to graduate on time and to perform better academically.
In addition to the plaza, the college has big plans for expansion. With the move to NCAA Division II, there are plans to expand athletics facilities. Funding is still being sought for a new College of Nursing Facility and various improvements around campus are in the works.
Some of those improvements include the phasing in of sidewalks down Old Omen Road, a lighted walking path from the campus-owned apartment complexes and some remodeling in the former College of Business facility.