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Sitting behind his open Dell laptop computer, having lunch with a buddy, Justin Ayala said he has been craving a more social atmosphere at Santa Rosa Junior College.

On Monday, just after polishing off a plate of chow mein, the mechanical engineering major from Novato said the opening of the new, $40 million Lawrence A. Bertolini Student Center gave him a taste of what he's been looking for.

"I think the social aspect is really good because this was a very quiet, cold campus," he said of the center's bustling dining commons. "Because this is a solely commuting campus, there is no social life here — or there wasn't. There was no way to meet your fellow students except in class."

Monday marked the return to school following the holiday break and the first day students could use the building that has for 22 months been under construction at the heart of the Santa Rosa campus.

Located next to the $46 million Doyle Library on Elliott Avenue, the new facility will provide an anchor for students, said college president Robert Agrella.

"Students are coming to campus and aren't leaving between classes, they are staying," he said. "It adds to the sense of campus life, which is important, having students feel like they are a part of the real college life, not just commuting back and forth and taking classes in between."

The first floor of the student center which houses the dining services, activities center and student clubs and leadership office opened Monday. Counseling offices, the transfer center, faculty senate space and career development offices are expected to move in during the next five weeks.

The three-story building will also have three classrooms available for fall classes and other meeting rooms.

"It consolidates many of the student services functions into two major locations, in Plover Hall and the Bertolini Center," Agrella said. "So students don't have to go into the little houses along Elliott (Avenue) and go hunting in various buildings. They are in one of two places."

The opening of the student center marks one of the major and final pieces of construction paid for by Measure A, the $251 million bond approved by voters in 2002.

The $46 million, 145,000-square-foot Doyle Library opened in 2006, the $60 million expansion of the Petaluma campus was largely completed in 2008, the $31 million, 1,110-space parking garage along Mendocino Avenue opened in 2007, and the $10 million Plover Hall renovation was completed in 2008.

Construction on an approximately $25 million culinary arts center is expected to begin this spring, Agrella said.

The expansion, while welcomed, has put the campus in a tough financial spot with state support of community colleges diminishing in the wake of California's budget crisis, Agrella said.

He said the added square footage of the new facilities adds to costs: "... the operational costs are increasing because you have more custodians, more dollars for heating and cooling," he said.

The junior college's enrollment is equivalent to 21,460, meaning about 37,000 people are taking at least one class on campus this semester.

Campus officials eliminated about 430 classes from the fall and spring schedules as a money saving measure.

First year student Daniel Cruz acknowledged that the bond money has long been dedicated to specific projects, but said the soaring ceilings and massive glass windows of the new student dining area felt a little out of place amid other cuts across campus and crowded classes as a result of budget woes.

"I think it's too fancy," he said. "We are in a crisis. We are getting cut...classes are getting fuller, it's harder to get in."

Second year student Zack Rosenbaum said the new dining center might actually end up saving him money.

He opted for a $3 bean burrito over choices that included a salad bar, Italian options, grilled and hot entrees, Mexican food and prepackaged sandwiches. He said the large burrito will likely keep him sated all day — no need to dash off campus for fast food or more expensive fare, he said.

"And this is a lot healthier," he said.

Third year student Kari Clark could barely contain her enthusiasm for the new facility:

"It's so beautiful. I have been anticipating this moment," she said, heating up some leftover Vietnamese noodle soup in one of a row of self-serve microwaves.

An array of outdoor food kiosks never fostered the community feel that Clark thought college should have. She would routinely head to her grandmother's home nearby and eat lunch there between classes, she said.

Will her grandmother miss their lunch dates now that the new dining hall is completed?

"I invited her to come and eat," she said. "I was that excited."