Greg McNicol

The Campus Transformation Project under way at the University of Texas at El Paso is a $25-million makeover of huge proportions and innumerable steps and timelines.

Every week, representatives from 11 UTEP offices meet to discuss everything from the communications plans to accessibility for students with disabilities.

One man manages to stay on top of it all. When it comes to knowing what comes next and why, Greg McNicol, AIA, associate vice resident for business affairs, is the man with the plan.

With 33 years of experience as an architect in higher education, McNicol knows the ropes; he has been at UTEP since 2001. His El Paso roots run deep: he grew up here and graduated from Eastwood High School. His father and grandfather ran McNicol Electronics in the Five Points area from 1946 to 2006.

After graduating from Texas Tech, he lived in Austin for 21 years while working on various projects in the University of Texas System. When he left Austin, he was working with five campuses: UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas, UT-Permian Basin, UTEP and Southwest Medical Center in Dallas. He says he’s very glad to be back in El Paso and he loves his job.

He and his wife Becky, his high school sweetheart, have a son in Phoenix and a daughter in Ann Arbor. He has a brother in El Paso who is retiring from elementary school coaching. But at 59, McNicol says he is far from interested in retiring.

“I’m having too much fun!” he laughs.

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El Paso Inc. caught up with McNicol in his office to find out more about the project, including parking problems, how the look of a campus affects recruiting and why some 1960s buildings have no front doors.

Q: Architects work with so many different aspects of buildings – functional, artistic, pragmatic even psychological. Does the architecture and landscape of a campus affect the student and faculty experience?

I do think it affects them. Some college buildings, especially from the ‘60s that had a style of architecture of the time, are cold and stark and I can’t help but wonder what that effect was on students. It was almost done on purpose.

There was a mentality that you didn’t want people to come together, so if you don’t make a front door very predominant – it’s just a big block – they couldn’t complain or rally because you can’t find the front door. The older buildings of the 1960s don’t create an environment where people can come together.

Most of our buildings don’t do that, but Fox Fine Arts has that a little bit. Where’s the front door? There is no front door. It has three departments and you have to know your way around to find the department chairs. It’s designed that way.

Since then, most of us have realized that’s not a good thing. The environment that you live in helps give you a sense of place and that you belong. And that’s important. For instance, we have gone back on the Engineering Building and put an addition on the building and we moved the dean and faculty offices to the first floor from offices in the middle of the building with no windows.

That started to tie the engineering program back to the street and back to the people. That new courtyard is suddenly not just a place to pass through, but a place to gather. We’re starting to shift and look at our landscaping and how do we tie that back to our buildings.

Q: Do you think the appearance of campus helps in such areas as recruiting?

At the end of the day, it’s about the first impression. When you first arrive at any campus, you start to formulate “Does it feel right? Does it feel comfortable? Do I feel like I could belong here?”

For instance, I think the Larry K. Durham Center does a great job of recruiting athletes. When they show them the facility, it’s probably the best weight room with a view anywhere. And that’s got to help with recruiting; the same first impression will help in other places.

Q: One of the biggest changes will be converting streets and parking lots to a new Centennial Plaza green space linking the Union and the Administration, Geological Sciences, and Psychology buildings. Pedestrian-centered central campuses are very popular at many colleges – how did the idea come about here?

If you look back at the UTEP master plan from 2002, it includes some images of the concept of closing the campus. We were starting to understand the challenges we were having and the conflicts between pedestrian and vehicular traffic. About 10 years ago, I sat down with Dr. Diana Natalicio and we discussed the concept. Could we experiment and close the campus for the summer just to see what that would be like?

The long and short of it was we weren’t ready yet. We didn’t have the rest of the pieces in place around it to make it happen. We can’t ignore the vehicles; we just had to find alternative solutions for them. Back then, there were three basic parking permits and a lot of hunting was going on – people driving around different parking lots. Students would circle for 15 or 30 minutes and we needed to better manage it.

Part of that solution was to build parking lots and assign people to them. That launched the first series of projects like the Sun Bowl Garage and the Schuster parking.

Then about two years ago, 18 months ago, we started in earnest to want to develop images of what the campus would look like in the direction we wanted to take it. We wanted to get more details in the master plans from 2002 and 2011. We had some ideas, but they weren’t defined yet.

We put out a request for qualifications and interviewed Lake/Flato and Christy Ten Eyck of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects to come in. We just loved their concepts and that spurred the next step when we got it added to the capital improvement plan and launched the fundraising activities.

Q: Did Ten Eyck’s work at Arizona State Polytechnic, another big campus, influence the decision?

It did because she seems to have that real strong connection to a desert environment. My son lives in the Chandler area so when we were visiting him, we went by that campus and my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed walking through it and realizing that some of where we were walking was an old street and an old Air Force base that were now gone. It reminds you that, yes, you’re in a desert, it’s an embellished desert setting, but it’s still a desert.

The birds, and the insects, you could just see that the desert was alive, in an awesome way.

You just said, “Wow, this place is kind of amazing.” There were subtleties and surprises and the way they recycled materials was another big hit for us, too. We really liked that concept. We’ve been pretty earnest about not sending stuff to the dump whenever we can. We liked how she reincorporated waste materials back into the project. That absolutely drove who we selected.

When you look at that arroyo at Arizona State, it looks like it’s been there forever. It’s a combination of using a variety of things so it looks nature-like – that’s a learned skill. Let’s go ahead and grab somebody who figured it out and worked with a contractor in Mesa to pull it off.

Q: Will local contractors carry out the UTEP plan?

CF Jordan is our construction manager at risk. He has to bid out all the pieces and manage it. Right now that we’re focused on utilities – that’s obviously the first step.

Some of those utility lines are not leaking right now, but they have had a long life in the ground; the time to replace them is now. Some are relocated to areas that will be easier for us to maintain in the future.

We’re fine-tuning what I call the engines to get ready for the above-the-ground work.

Q: When will the actual planting begin?

We’re hoping by January or February. Out for bid on the street right now is the trees. In a nice way, I want to jump ahead of everyone else. I don’t want to get stuck with smaller caliber trees than we needed. We have a bid proposal out to local nurseries to grow our trees and reserve them for us. There’s a balance: If the tree is too big, there’s a high probability of not transplanting well.

Q: I’ve asked you before about your favorite feature in the Campus Transformation, but you don’t want to commit! However, you do seem to favor the Lhakhang, the beautiful Bhutanese shrine given to the people of the United States in 2008 after Bhutan’s participation in the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., which will be a focal point of the new Centennial Plaza.

It’s a gift of friendship from His Majesty, a gift from one country to another. That’s why I wanted to make sure we were respectful of their building customs. We wanted to situate it in a way that they were comfortable with. One of the things that is important in their culture is the orientation of the front door, so we worked with the architect from Bhutan to shift it a few degrees to the east.

Our relationship to Bhutan is one of the unique things about UTEP. It allows us to go to another level. I’m learning a little bit about how they put a building together. In fact we have a guide called “Auspicious Astrological Aspects in Building Construction.” As an architect, I have to go deeper and learn about their culture.

Q: Why did you want to be an architect?

The artistic thing in the background is that I like to create and the biggest thing you can create is a building. Maybe it’s a West Texas thing – bigger is better. I am an architect by training, but I have a passion for landscape architecture, too. Had I realized there was an all-landscaping school, I would have done that. I have a personal interest in it, so I made a point to learn about it.

Q: Why did you want to work at UTEP?

To be honest, I love the architecture. I appreciate what architect Henry Trost was doing, his attention to detail.

And I mean this when I say it, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of different presidents and they’re all good people, but there’s no one like President Natalicio. One of the drivers was to come work for her and her staff.