By 1990, administrators at University of Maryland, Baltimore County faced a problem. The student body had outgrown the University Center within just a decade of its opening. They considered the solution of building a new activity space to make two campus centers, but students spoke up with a clear demand. In order to continue building the campus community, there could only be one campus center. No space remained on the campus’ “academic row,” an area of the campus consisting of academic buildings, to build an addition to the existing University Center so the university planned the construction of a brand-new student center called the Commons to open in 2002.
A collaboration between Perry Dean Rogers and Design Collective architectural firms, the Commons was designed to shift the center of campus life from “academic row” to a new, emerging quad facing many of the residence halls to the north and east. The university planned to build the Commons on the foundation of Gym I, one of UMBC’s original campus buildings, which housed physical education space and the Commuter Cafeteria. After UMBC funded improvements for the Retriever Athletic Center, the amenities of Gym I were no longer needed, allowing the campus to build the Commons in its place.
While there was a consensus among students, faculty, and administrators that UMBC needed the Commons, there was conflict as to how to pay for it. Students and families worried about the increase in fees placed on students in order to finance the space. Business owners in Arbutus and Catonsville worried that the potential retail space in the new building would create competition between local businesses and isolate students from their surrounding communities. Despite these concerns, UMBC pushed ahead and built what President Freeman Hrabowski believed would be a “university commons for the entire university.”
When the Commons opened on the first day of the spring semester in 2002, students appreciated expanded services and amenities previously located at the University Center, such as additional meeting space for all student organizations, a flexible performance space, retail space, and study areas. The innovative design of the Commons—marked by two larger corridors that intersect at the center and the use of glass walls to light up the space—won a design award from the Maryland Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Most importantly, this functional and aesthetically pleasing space is student-centered with a majority of the spaces controlled by students themselves.
Originally built in the face of projected enrollment increases, the Commons remains a bustling center of campus activity. However, as UMBC continues to grow, a larger student space will need to be constructed to meet continuing population increases. A new Student Services and Student Life building is slated to be constructed in the future to address some of the strains currently placed on the Commons.