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With a couple hundred UTC students living at the Chattanooga Choo Choo because of a shortage of campus housing, university officials are eyeing construction of a 600-bed dormitory on the site of the nearby Chattanooga State Office Building.
"We think we could fill 600 beds right now," said UTC Chancellor Dr. Steve Angle, adding he'd like to see the new dorms up and running for fall 2016.
Angle also said the seven-story office building on McCallie Avenue -- most of which was built by Interstate Life and Accident Insurance Co. in 1951 -- would have to be demolished.
He said the structure is "quite old and a sick building, and it's not economical to be retained. That would have to come down."
Not so fast, says the head of the Chattanooga historic preservation group Cornerstones.
"I think the building would be an asset to use," said Ann Gray, who heads the group. "It's a building that makes a statement."
Before anything can happen, UTC needs to gain ownership of the property. At present, the state is evaluating a half-dozen locations where it could move its McCallie Avenue workforce along with those employees at the nearby James R. Mapp office building.
Lola Potter, a spokeswoman for the state Department of General Services, said there's a "hard deadline" for that evaluation to be finished by Sept. 23. However, she said, she expects the process to be done before then.
State House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he hopes UTC could secure the property from the state Building Commission, potentially for a token sum such as $1.
McCormick said he talked with UTC officials recently about the proposed student dorm and that it makes sense.
"UTC is becoming less of a commuter school and more of an on-campus experience," he said.
Concerning the dismantling of the McCallie office building, McCormick said that's "a good possibility."
Angle, speaking to Times Free Press reporters and editors, said the cost of the proposed dorms hasn't been fully priced out and the number of floors the building would have is undecided.
But University of Tennessee President Dr. Joe DiPietro said the project could be funded by issuing bonds paid back through what students would pay to live in the new dorms.
"The big difference is that it's self-funded," he said.
Angle said a 600-bed residence hall is about the right size for doing such a self-funded project. It provides "a critical mass to allow us to have the funding flow to pay the debt service to finance that," he said.
The new UTC chancellor, who came on board this summer, said he envisions the dorm as traditional student housing rather than apartments and that it would focus on freshmen.
"The friendships and bonds created in that environment is healthy to retention and success," he said.
Angle said the new dorms could be raised on one of the parking lots of the office building, which initially may be utilized as Lupton Library is renovated. He said if UTC secures the Mapp building as well, he'd like to keep that newer structure -- it was built in the 1990s -- standing.
Angle said officials are exploring the possibility of linking the proposed new housing to the free downtown shuttle buses and tying those to UTC student transportation.
"All of the students would have access to downtown and to businesses," he said.
The original Interstate Life building was erected in 1951. An addition was completed in 1976. It and the Mapp building are among a half-dozen the state Department of General Services is disposing of because the projected cost of maintaining the structures is too much for state offices.
Gray said that while UTC does a good job at campus master planning, officials need to be conscious of nearby structures and "embrace preserving what's around them."
It's estimated that the cost to fix the problems with the two state office buildings could reach nearly $12 million. But, Gray said, the price tag attached to building new dorms is "a large number" as well.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.