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New student facility heart of SSU


Sonoma State University's expensive, expansive new student center, which opened Wednesday, is not all about food.

But the three-story, 130,000-square-foot building has 11 kitchens and 10 dining options, including a full-service restaurant, a sports bar and a live demonstration kitchen that anchors a sophisticated food court.

One food court restaurant, Passport, features menu items from 56 countries and many regions of the United States. Elsewhere in the food court, students can find Mongolian barbecue, Mexican street food and ongoing cooking demonstrations based on the work of famous chefs — on Wednesday, it was Marcella Hazen's Indian curry peppers.

This is not your parents' college cafeteria.

"I wanted to create an environment here that will be just as much of an education as what they are getting in the classroom," said Eric Lee, executive chef of SSU's culinary services and a former contestant on "The Next Food Network Star" show.

The student center is also about comfortable chairs. There are lounges in every direction, including one directly inside the entrance that features a long gas fireplace that would fit well in an elegant hotel lobby.

"We want to build community; that's the concept," said Jessica Way, director of the $62 million center, which has an operating budget of about $300,000.

"It really is, top to bottom, the piece that will really stand out," Way said. "You have a better place to go to work and a better place to be a student, and everybody will win."

The center caps a building boom led by SSU President Ruben Armi?na that has transformed the campus in the past 15 years, which has seen the construction of the $140 million Green Music Center, 21 student apartment buildings and a high-tech library, as well as complete renovations of science and administration buildings.

"It brings them together in a central place to eat, mingle, rest and socialize. It is their new kitchen-living room," Armi?na said of the center. He said the campus needs just one more building, to house the nursing department and the schools of business and economics and education.

Students approved the center — assessing themselves a $300 annual fee to pay for it — after a contentious 2010 election that was challenged by opponents who charged the vote was improperly run.

None of that friction was evident Wednesday, as Lee led a visitor around the building while students milled around the new facility.

The food dominates the first floor. On the second floor are, among other things, the SSU bookstore, the student government headquarters, the multicultural center known as The Hub, and student clubs. The third floor holds offices; a 12,000 square foot ballroom which can be rented by community members and groups; a full-service restaurant called The Overlook; and a number of meeting rooms.

"It brings so many core functions of the campus to one centrally located place," said Mac Hart, 21, president of Associated Students, the university's student government body.

He said the unifying of various student activities would foster something that the university needs.

"The spontaneous conversations, the informal gathering, the handshakes that lead to relationships that lead to collaborations," he said. "It's that sort of hard-to-track connection that really builds community and that sense of place and connection to place that Sonoma State's been missing a little bit."

Faculty who stopped by came away impressed.

"I feel that now the university is complete," said engineering professor Saeid Rahimi, who toured the center Wednesday afternoon. "It's the heart of the place, where students can gather. And it was missing."

On the building's first day open, students streamed in and out, talking about what they saw.

"I think it's amazing; it's so new and so appealing to all your senses," said Haley Pennington, 18, a freshman standing outside the building, which has metal and wood exteriors and long, glass-paneled walls.

"Wait, are there only three beers on tap," said a female student heading for the Lobo sports bar.

"There's four. There's room for 10," a student employee said.

The students plopped themselves into soft armchairs, strolled wide, museum-like hallways, and asked when the kitchens opened for business (5 p.m. on Wednesday; 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day thereafter).

The center would redefine SSU, many said.

"A lot of times before, Sonoma was known for its dorms; we have the best dorms in the country," said sophomore Bailey Wochner, 19. "Now we're going to be known for having a really good student center."

"It's sort of like the salons of Paris or the coffee shops of Silicon Valley," said Christopher Gonzalez, 27, who's working on a teaching credential. "When you're all together you can create amazing things that you would never even think of on your own."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.