Originally published September 22, 2016
By Daniel Perez
The University of Texas at El Paso’s popular Centennial Plaza has lived up to its promise as “UTEP’s living room” since it opened officially in April 2015, and now it is being recognized globally for its sustainable design.
Designers saw the 11-acre Campus Transformation project area, which includes Centennial Plaza, as an ecologically sustainable setting where students, staff and faculty could re-energize their batteries, as a site of campus events with the size and power to host a rock concert, and as an exterior lab/classroom where faculty and students could tap into the natural environment.
The plaza’s chameleon-like abilities have earned rave reviews from those who use it, as well as recognition from state and international organizations that have looked at its landscaping plan. One of the latest and most prestigious honors is from Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which announced that UTEP’s Campus Transformation project is the first project in the world to earn a SITES Silver Certification Award for achievement in landscape sustainability.
SITES is the world’s most comprehensive program for sustainable land development and aligns land development and management with innovative design. It focuses on the ecosystem, green infrastructure and sustainability. UTEP’s Campus Transformation project was rated in such areas as site design, construction, and operations and maintenance. The project earned the maximum points for innovation.
Mahesh Ramanujam, president of GBCI, the group that recently honored the University’s Campus Transformation, said the project showed tremendous leadership in landscape design that included wide multi-textured walking paths, native or drought-resistant shade trees and other vegetation, decorative lighting, water features, concrete benches, rock-strewn arroyos, and a 130-seat amphitheater. The design also involved storm water drainage and infrastructure upgrades.
“We know that a sustainable built environment extends beyond the four walls of a building, and through the use of SITES, projects like this are creating ecologically resilient communities, reducing water demand, improving air quality and human health by connecting people to nature,” Ramanujam said. “UTEP and the entire project team who worked on this certification are true leaders in campus transformation and sustainable landscape design.”
The Campus Transformation project also was recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency during its 18th annual Region 6 Stormwater Conference Oct. 2-6, 2016, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The project earned first place in the People’s Choice Award in the Outstanding Green Infrastructure and Low Impact Development Project Competition. The region is made up of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.
The University has used the oval plaza, which is about 2/3 the size of a football field, for such popular activities as back-to-school welcoming events, campus health fairs, international food fairs, and Movies on the Lawn, but it also has been a magnet among individuals, friends and community members who want a place to relax, stroll, eat, throw a Frisbee, or take photos.
“It’s an escape,” said Jaime Mendez, director of UTEP’s Student Support Services Program, whose offices are in nearby Union Building West.
Mendez uses the plaza professionally for team-building activities for his program, which enrolls about 200 first-generation college students who come from low-income families. He uses it personally to take a breath after his doctoral classes and sees others doing the same thing. Sometimes a lone minstrel will be strumming his guitar or families will be out hunting Pokémon long after sunset.
“It’s good to see life after hours,” he said. “You walk the perimeter and you get the sense of recreation.”
Rachelle Kernen, a doctoral candidate in geological sciences, said she was attracted to the plaza by its relaxing atmosphere. Kernan, a certified yoga instructor, and others began to lead an impromptu yoga class at the nearby Geology Lawn for a few graduate students in fall 2015, but it became so popular within a few months that they formed “Dare to Dream Yoga” and moved to Centennial Plaza where about 50 people take the free classes at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays.
“The plaza is gorgeous,” Kernan said. “It taps into our senses. It’s visually beautiful. You hear the water features. You smell the plants. It‘s all very soothing. We love being out there.”
The plaza also serves as a viable training ground for students. One recent weekday, Diane Doser, Ph.D., professor of geological sciences, was among a quartet of faculty and graduate students who were calibrating a conductivity meter, which measures the ground’s electricity and moisture content.
Doser said she often brings her students to the plaza to practice how to use a compass or how to get their bearings for the times they are in the field without a GPS or tape measure. She called the plaza a great place to train before field trips to the Upper Valley to research the moisture content along the banks of the Rio Grande.
The professor added that she uses the walkways that border the Tiffany Bermuda grass field and finds a quiet spot near a water feature to watch birds and butterflies.
“I purposefully look for reasons to take a detour to the plaza for a Zen moment before I meet with my class with 120 students,” she said with a laugh.
University officials are grateful for the SITES recognition and share it with partners such as the University of Texas System Board of Regents and the Texas Department of Transportation, which helped extend the project’s scope.
The Regents approved an allocation of $10 million from the Permanent University Fund Bond for the project in August 2013. That served as a match to an $8 million TxDOT investment.
The Regents’ allotment helped UTEP fund the infrastructure upgrades that the University needed to support its robust research agenda. It allowed for a redesign of the underground utility and service lines. The TxDOT money was used on projects that improved access to the University and the community through Interstate 10 such as Spur 1966 and the widening of Sun Bowl Drive.
“Their financial help had a huge impact on what we were able to accomplish,” said Greg McNicol, associate vice president for business affairs – facilities management. “There are parts of the project that would not have been possible without their help. As is, it has had a positive impact on the University and the community.”