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06-24-20 | Feature

Blending a Campus

New Plaza at Historic University
by HGOR

Located in Macon, the school's distinctive identity continues through the appreciation and prominence of Cruz Plaza. The space encapsulates past and future generations, cultivating a synergy and focus toward shared memories and experiences.
The renovation at Mercer University's Cruz Plaza was designed by HGOR and represents a complete transformation of the geographical core of Georgia's oldest private institution.
Design details articulate a series of open spaces and movements both geometric and subtle in form throughout the six-acre site. These details include 17,600 square feet of brick pavers, light poles that are the standard model for the university, banners that were later added by the school and a 10-foot tall bear statue.
Central to Cruz Plaza is a one-acre multifunctional lawn.
Preservation of multiple mature oak trees and a specimen Gingko tree, as well as the planting of dozens of shade trees, enhance the institution's tree canopy framework.
Cruz Plaza was previously a disconnected and under-utilized quad space. Having a central open greenspace in the heart of the campus now creates connecting spaces and ties the surrounding buildings into the larger, collective whole.
A critical component of the planning process was deciding on the relocation of the bear statue, which now sits at the juncture of Cruz Plaza and Mercer's athletics facilities. The 2,200 pound bronze statue was created by artist Stephen LeBlanc. The school mascot and its installation cost about $70,000, money that was raised by students, faculty, staff and alums. It replaced a cement bear from the 1940s that didn't last. Legend has it that the school chose Bears as their athletic team name (though they were officially known as the Baptists up to 1924) based on an occurrence at the first football game played between Mercer and Georgia in 1892. As a burly Mercer player with long hair and handlebar mustache came running out onto the field, someone in the crowd hollered, "Whence cometh that bear?"

The open space renovation known as Cruz Plaza represents a complete transformation of the geographical core of Georgia's oldest private institution of higher learning. Landlocked by neighboring development, Mercer University recognized that accommodating for an increase in student enrollment would require an innovative design approach to physical expansion of its main campus in Macon. In contrast to the opportunities associated with renovation, the existing site bolstered unclear purpose and extensive connectivity and capacity issues. Mercer collaborated with HGOR, an Atlanta-based planning and landscape architecture firm, to enhance the university's identity through a unification medium that activates the visual center of campus.

HGOR conducted an initial site inventory and analysis to pinpoint the physical boundaries of each site-specific challenge. This process resulted in a broader, more robust context of needs and growth in terms of accessibility, circulation and transportation. New athletic facilities constructed on the southern end of campus had shifted the central spotlight to an area historically known as a physical boundary for the university. Although the site had direct interface with Mercer's main academic buildings, residence halls and athletic facilities, it lacked the aesthetic appeal and functional capacity to match daily interactions with students, faculty and staff. Key to blending the historic north quad and growing south campus was repositioning the physical elements that divided them - an abandoned roadway, parking lot, aimless walkways and underutilized plaza. In terms of accessibility, initial analysis of the site's topography revealed an elevation change greater than 50 feet across the 6.5-acre site. Previously established as a core driver of design, detailed ADA connectivity needed to be seamlessly integrated into the overall framework to ensure universal accessibility. HGOR streamlined this ADA benchmark with the re-incorporation of vehicular-oriented emergency accessibility, which was necessitated upon removal of the existing roadway. A series of multi-modal pathways capitalizes on the pedestrian experience while simultaneously addressing and muting the harsh presence of a vehicular blueprint. Visual connectivity throughout the plaza's human-scaled spaces was considered of equal importance. The pedestrian circulation also offers clear linkages between campus facilities and student life functions.

Cruz Plaza's understated design is anchored by the largest greenspace quad on campus and emphasizes a sense of arrival through plazas, gateways, boardwalk and a historic bear statue. The north and west edges are defined by a water feature and pedestrian promenade, which offers a great vantage point over the quad and campus beyond. Mercer's vision of a timeless space informed layout and materiality. Once implemented, the design details articulated a series of open spaces and movements both geometric and subtle in form. Brick patios and gathering spaces complement the surrounding architecture to weave newer development with existing historical structures - physically reflecting Mercer's heritage. The patio framing Mercer's business school also serves as the footprint for a stage, with power and AV hookups to support outdoor concerts and pep rallies. The resulting hierarchy of circulation patterns and outdoor 'rooms' supports an array of daily social, academic and student life functions.

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An ethos of sustainability is supported through the preservation of multiple mature oak trees and a specimen Gingko tree, as well as the planting of dozens of shade trees to enhance the tree canopy framework. These efforts were parlayed with native or adapted plantings and vegetation that reduce the institution's water consumption through irrigation and help guide a sense of place. Local sweltering temperatures necessitated a design that embodies comfortable microclimates. A large water wall frames the north gateway to Cruz Plaza, which creates a wash of white noise and both physically and psychologically refreshes nearby students. To minimize construction impact to a single semester, all planning and design work was completed in a compressed three-month time frame. Design and programming needs were swiftly assimilated into plan concepts, refined site plans, and a final detailed 3D model that encompassed the entire twenty-acre campus core. The resulting photorealistic renderings from the 3D model provided such richness and clarity to the project vision that they played a significant role in securing a major donor and making the funding for the project a reality.

Cruz Plaza is now the social center of gravity of the campus and has effectively re-established the value of institutional open space. The dynamic environment offers an inspirational activity space for vital social and academic functions, both planned and impromptu. An exponential increase in usage is seen through numerous year-round activities such as campus tours, commencement, outdoor class lectures and "The Bear Walk" - a tradition spurred by the existence of Cruz Plaza to support and engage with student athletics. On game days the football team parades through the open space as they head to the stadium, high-fiving the 10-foot tall bear sculpture as tailgating fans line the way and the band plays Mercer's fight song on the plaza steps.

The coinciding appreciation and prominence of Cruz Plaza is due to its manifestation of an inclusive, inviting and integrated renewal of educational, social and recreational wellbeing. The award-winning repositioning project has been recognized by American School & University and the Georgia Chapter of ASLA. The implemented redesign spurred an eight-year relationship between HGOR and Mercer University consisting of more than twenty-eight projects - each encouraging the transformation of students, faculty and staff as they learn, work and play.

Team List
Owner - Mercer University
Prime Consultant, Landscape Architecture + Master Planning - HGOR
General Contractor - Sheridan Construction
Civil Engineer - Hulsey McCormick & Wallace
MEP Engineer - Nottingham Brook & Pennington

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2020.

Filed Under: HGOR, CAMPUS, UNIVERSITY, SCHOOL, GEORGIA, LASN

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