There is much to be excited about when it comes to the new Student Center and Dining Commons — the joint project that will extensively repurpose the existing structure of the currently deserted Merrill Science Building. Designed by Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron, the center’s spaces will be built under four guiding principles: well-being (exercise areas, prayer rooms, and party venues), engagement (homes for various student organizations), gathering (lounges and event spaces), and creating (makerspaces, performance areas, and an indoor greenhouse). Advertised as a bridge between upper and lower campus, the Center is intended to be a crossroads of interests and affinities.
But there is also reason for trepidation about the project’s potential impact on campus life. When the center “replace[s] the dining facility located in the aging Valentine Hall, which is nearing the end of its useful life,” the dynamic of campus will radically change. Val has long been the nucleus around which Amherst orbits. As our only dining hall, it draws just about every student on campus (excluding residents of the Humphries House food co-op) at least once a day. Many students plan their housing selections around proximity to Val, with some even living in Val’s residential second level. Val also serves as a social hub, a place for students living on opposite sides of campus to meet up, bump into one another, or spend many consecutive hours studying at a table as part of a practice known as “Val-sitting.”
The construction of the center will lead to a drastic reorientation of campus space, as student life will begin to revolve around an entirely difficult focal point: one that is (at Merrill’s current site) much further south. It should be noted that this shift could isolate those who live in dorms on the north and west parts of campus: Residents of the Triangle or the Hill, for instance, will be situated even further from the center of campus life than they already are.
A new use for the first floor of Val has not yet been decided. With the new center on the horizon, it’s important to consider ways in which Val can best be repurposed to avoid creating an unbalanced campus.
If Val were to be kept as a second dining hall, there could be shorter lines, more culinary options, and Grab-n-Go for dinner. However, it’s preferable that Val does not remain as a second dining hall. Such a purpose may reinforce a bifurcated STEM-humanities campus — an extension of the existing Science Center/Frost Library study space dichotomy — as busy students will naturally gravitate towards the more convenient dining hall located closest to where they spend their time. This speculation reaffirms how college’s notorious “fishbowl effect” is in fact valuable: Unlike larger schools in which divisions are necessary for the sake of organization, Amherst can share a communal space in which students are exposed to others pursuing different academic and extracurricular endeavors instead of being segregated by interest. Thus, although Amherst should remain a single-dining-hall campus, the Editorial Board proposes that Val be fashioned into a new student space to counterbalance the social shift towards Merrill.
With a location for social gathering as a broad umbrella, Val becomes a space open to possibilities. At the very least, it should continue to function as a dorm as the college continues to overenroll amid a long-existing housing crisis. Val could transform into a cafe setting or a late night hangout location, comparable to the role of Schwemm’s pre-Covid. It should be noted that according to findings from the recent sexual assault prevention talk, researchers recommend that colleges add such public spaces to congregate. Ingredients could be stocked in its kitchen for students to practice self-sufficient cooking skills. It could possibly even serve as student storage, eliminating the need to pay for Boomerang. In any case, student opinion should lead the way.
Though the Editorial Board believes that Val would be best furnished as a multipurpose common space, the more urgent issue is bringing this impending shift in student life into campus consciousness. As the administration is still deliberating on what to make of our beloved Val, the student body must voice their opinions on this drastic modification to their campus life. After all, as a strong sense of place is integral to the Amherst experience, it stands to reason that we must consider with sensitivity the changes made to our shared space.