NASHVILLE - State officials have given UTC the go-ahead to begin planning a $59 million student residence hall to ease chronic bed shortages at the Chattanooga campus.
But the location isn't the Chattanooga State Office Building on McCallie Avenue, as some expected.
State Building Commission members recently approved full planning for the 600-bed, dormitory-style hall on a site near Douglas and East Fifth streets that now houses UTC's nearly 40-year-old Racquet Center and adjacent tennis courts.
"This is just the first step," said Chuck Cantrell, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga associate vice chancellor. He added that UTC will need to seek additional building commission approval at various other stages, including construction.
But if all goes smoothly, UTC officials hope the new dorm could open as early as 2017 to house freshmen. Money for the project will come from school bonds backed by student housing fees. Racquetball and tennis will be relocated to the Engel Stadium complex.
"We've had a long need for student housing," Cantrell said, citing continued enrollment growth.
UTC saw about a 19 percent increase in student enrollment from 2009 to 2013. Last fall, enrollment stood at about 11,670, Cantrell said.
UTC requires most out-of-area first-year students to live on campus, said Student Government Association President Robert Fisher.
"There are always a hundred or so freshmen who do not have beds on campus so they have to stay at the Chattanooga Choo Choo [hotel], that's the place the university is contracting with now," Fisher said.
Other students have had problems getting living space on campus, too. Fisher said he and other SGA officials "work with students a lot on these issues."
The SGA has pushed for a residence hall and the kinds of services it should provide. The residence hall, which will include a common dining facility, will be a departure from the apartments UTC has focused on in recent years.
"The type of living environment that more traditional residence halls provide is just great" and ideal for freshman, Fisher said. "It just really encourages collaboration, discussion and close friendships."
In the apartments, Fisher added, "it's very easy to stay in your room ... make food in your kitchen area and not meet other people. So we really thought it important to create a housing complex conducive for interaction" among first-year students.
UTC administrators agree.
"The focus for this housing will be for freshmen and creating learning communities that will help engage students on the campus and help make them successful," Cantrell said.
He said the university would like to acquire land along Vine Street for more housing that would also help connect the campus to downtown Chattanooga.
"We also believe this would help animate the corridor and spur business development," he noted.
But much will depend on continued student growth, which Cantrell said slowed in the 2013-14 school year.
There had been talk of building student housing at the site of the Chattanooga State Office Building. The state transferred ownership of that building and the adjacent James R. Mapp Building to UTC in January, Department of General Services spokesman David Roberson, said in an email.
Cantrell called the donation "a tremendous opportunity for us -- truly a transformational opportunity given the limited amount of accessible land around campus."
The university gets space to grow as well as 600 new parking places as a result, he said.
UTC is looking at making short-term use of the buildings, which would include academic and administrative offices, Cantrell said.
Acting on the advice of the state's building services contractor, Jones Lang LaSalle, Gov. Bill Haslam's administration plans to vacate the buildings by fall and move workers at various agencies to privately leased space.
The rationale is the buildings need extensive work running into millions of dollars and it's less expensive long-term to lease private commercial space. Jones Lang LaSalle was also responsible under contract for striking the deals on leased space, on which the company earned a commission.
JLL and state officials said last year there is no conflict of interest since they told the state the lowest-cost alternative was constructing a new building.
Cantrell said the university continues to consider eventually demolishing the McCallie Avenue and East Eighth Street buildings. Preservationists have objected to that happening to the State Office Building, constructed by Interstate Life and Accident Insurance Co. in 1951 with an addition built in the 1970s.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.