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August 3, 2013

Swallowed Grounds: Cafe to downsize for ORCSA offices

Returning students will soon discover that one of their favorite coffee shops isn’t quite as hallowed as they thought.

Part of Hallowed Grounds will be converted into RSO advising space by the start of the upcoming academic year. The student-run cafe, located on the second floor of the Reynolds Club, will lose its refrigerators and the majority of its seating area to make space for the open-air office cubicles of the Student Advising Center.

“We have heard from students for many years that more space is needed for RSO Advising, and we believe the center provides a flexible solution to this problem while ensuring the comfort of Hallowed Grounds remains,” Sarah Cunningham, senior director for student life and assistant dean of students in the university, said in an e-mail. RSO advisers are currently spread across campus, with offices in Ida Noyes and the basement of the Reynolds Club.

A student advisory committee, formed last week, will consult on aspects of design, furniture, and the project’s timeline. It is composed of rising fourth-years Matt Wolf, general manager of Hallowed Grounds, and incoming fourth-year and SG President Michael McCown, as well as two graduate students and an ORCSA employee who recently graduated from the College.

The project aims to “retain the lounge-like use of this space,” through an open seating space that will join the coffee bar and the advising offices, according to Cunningham. But students on the advisory committee were skeptical that the cafe’s character could be preserved through the changes.

“The student reaction was pretty negative,” Wolf said. “Obviously, for instance, you can’t put some office worker employees in the seating area of a Starbucks.”

McCown said, “Even though they are trying hard to maintain as much of the Hallowed Grounds atmosphere as possible, we are just concerned that there isn’t enough space in the room to make that possible—to maintain Hallowed as it has been for students.”

The backlash surprised administrators, according to Wolf.

“They seemed genuinely shocked with what we said. They weren’t anticipating that students weren’t going to be okay with this.”

In a letter sent from the incoming SG executive slate to ORCSA on Monday, McCown, rising third-year and Vice President of Administration-elect Sofia Flores, and rising second-year and incoming Vice President of Student Affairs Jane Huber called on administrators to reconsider the changes after seeking more student input. McCown, who is a former Hallowed Grounds employee, said he contacted the heads of six undergraduate RSOs and Graduate Students United for feedback on the downsizing before submitting the letter.

“We understand ORCSA’s need for this space and we want to solve this problem, but we are concerned that Hallowed may be more important to students than is realized by administrators,” McCown said.

For Wolf, the ultimate value of the changes was for students to determine, not administrators.

“They should have asked us. More people should have been involved in this decision. Their argument is that this is fair to students, but they are improving one thing while ruining another. I don’t know if it’s a balance.”

The cafe's re-purposing is being funded by a one-time capital improvement to ORCSA and is part of a larger project that includes the construction of a Student Activities Center for RSOs in the basement of Reynolds Club, scheduled to open by winter quarter. ORCSA received funding for the initiative three weeks ago, but remodeling plans were dated from January, according to students at the student advisory meeting.

As news of the impending downsizing hit the student body, even an employee of one of Hallowed Grounds’ rivals pointed out the importance of the cafe to UChicago’s culture. Rising fourth-year Danny Rua, general manager of Ex Libris, called it UChicago’s “closest approximation” to the student centers found at other colleges.

“Hallowed Grounds is indisputably a unique place on campus that fills a specific role,” he said. “I think that all the four coffee shops have very unique vibes. They do more than just serve coffee.”

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