Feeling the space crunch

Ah, summer. The long days, the warm breezes and dandelion seeds floating in the air contribute to a lazy, laidback feeling in the Park Blocks. Inside Smith Center Scheduling Office, though, summer is one of the most hectic times of the year.

Summer Term enrollment is about half that of any other term. Despite the small number of students, Smith Memorial Student Union is open as usual, and special summer pressures highlight Portland State’s growing pains.

The university headcount has swelled to over 10,000 students in the past 10 years, nearly doubling the student population. Beside the pressures on classroom space, Smith Memorial Student Union feels the pinch. With the population increase come student organizations wanting offices, university departments giving lectures and community groups who view PSU as an attractive place to hold a conference.  And theoretically, renting out space in Smith could mean students would pay a smaller portion of the building’s operating costs.

Everyone wants a piece of Smith and Campus Event Scheduling gets to referee.

“We don’t have enough space for the amount of requests we receive,” said Charlene Levesque, Campus Event Scheduling manager. “Summer is one of our busiest times.”

Since Levesque began at Campus Event Scheduling 12 years ago, the number of requests for rental space has quadrupled, she said, and she has half the original scheduling staff. This is the busiest summer she’s ever seen, she added, and every year gets busier.

“I have fewer rooms than I used to and more requests for space,” Levesque said, listing organizations that now have permanent homes in Smith. “Figure it out.”

The biggest priority this summer is orientation sessions for some 3,300 incoming students. Orientation sessions fill up “all of our space every other day in July,” Levesque said. “I cannot have a conference that lasts more than a day.” Even the high-profile Micro Nano Breakthrough Conference in the last week of July got shuffled to University Place on days when new students explored the central campus.

Barring first-come-first-serve reservations, the scheduling office gives rental space priority to student groups, who pay the lowest rental rate or nothing for space. Ranked next are departmental lectures and meetings.  Taking last priority are outside organizations, who pay premium rates and fees for rooms.

Since 2002, the university has begun to stick outside groups with additional fees, said Auxiliary Services Director Julie North. “We really try to snag those opportunities where we can. We try to generate enough money throughout the year to reduce the amount we ask for from the [Student Fee Committee].”

The more money PSU can garner from outside the university, the less Auxiliary Services will depend on student fees to operate the student union.

“I wish we could get more external groups in here,” Levesque said. “But by the time we’ve filled student and department requests, we don’t have much left.”

Limited space contributes to outside groups booking events up to a year or two in advance, which can cause friction with groups requesting space with little lead time.

“We ask for three days notice,” she said. “We don’t always get it. And a request is a request, it’s not a reservation. That’s a distinction not everyone understands.”

With so many good uses for Smith Center, the tug of war for space sometimes is between established and respected groups, making priorities unclear. This summer, the contention between Food For Thought Café and the Police Activities League’s annual day camp is a classic case of space constraints.

The hordes of 10 to 16-year-olds in the Police Activities League camp are some of the more recognizable summer visitors. The PAL kids, mostly classified as low-income, at-risk youth, come to PSU campus five days a week throughout July to play on the community recreation field, for gang resistance training from Portland police, medical exams from OHSU volunteers and two hot meals a day.

The program has long had popular support from President Bernstine and the administration.

“It brings inner-city kids out of their little area,” Levesque said. “Hopefully it shows them how non-intimidating the university environment is. Maybe they’ll want to go to college here someday.”

Maura White, executive director of the free program, says the camp has been in various PSU locations but now needs to be near kitchen space to serve hot meals as mandated by the program’s grant.

“We’re not an outside group,” White said. “We’ve been part of the campus structure for 13 years.”

To that end, the group used Smith 26, better known as Food For Thought Café, to serve breakfast and lunch weekdays from June 27 to July 29.

The student-run café, which will turn two in September, decided in June to operate over Summer Term. After a successful first week, café managers learned that the annual Police Activities League day camp would use the café space from 7 a.m until noon or 2 p.m. The café closed a few weeks, then reopened 3 to 8 p.m. Since then, the café hasn’t been able to turn a profit and laid off student workers.

Café worker Dimitris Desyllas said Food For Thought leaders were surprised to learn during the first week of Summer Term that the café space would be used by PAL.

“We asked if they could move to Parkway North, but we were told the problem was that it has two exits and they couldn’t watch all the kids,” Desyllas said, adding, “Food For Thought has four exits.”

According to Levesque, orientation took place in Parkway North.

Food For Thought received $4,000 from the Student Fee Committee to make up for lost income.

“We lost all the money we invested in food and a lot of people lost their jobs,” Desyllas said. “That decision affected a lot of people.”

Had Food For Thought asked for the space earlier, the café could have stayed open, Levesque said, but conceded that the café would have had to share the space with the PAL food servers. “We would have had [Food For Thought] be open and accommodate the camp.”

“Their whole point was that we needed to give [the scheduling office] a heads up sooner, but I think they could have found another place that worked,” Desyllas said. “The university really didn’t try to look at it reasonably and make it work for both of us.”

PSU’s support of the PAL program means the camp has “a standing reservation” for space, White said.

“The university will commit to that space or lose the program,” White said. “The university doesn’t want that.”