UT Dallas Magazine: Seven-Year Project Transforms University

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from “Finding Our Place” by freelance writer Gaile Robinson from the latest edition of  UT Dallas Magazine.

north mall

The $45 million Campus Enhancement Project helped turn the “concrete canyon” on the mall into an impressive campus entry for visitors. Magnolias and lawns dotted with oak trees now line the sidewalks that lead to Trellis Plaza.


In the hours before indie music duo Alex & Sierra performed in a new nook of campus known for its bubbling illuminated fountains and grassy lounge areas, physics senior Shawhin Talebi saw to the technical details during an afternoon sound check. 

He expected a good turnout for the winners of the “X Factor,” Season 3 television competition, but he was a bit surprised when people started arriving well before the concert’s 7 p.m. start. In fact, the crowd that March evening swelled to 1,200 students, who sang and swayed on the newly renovated plaza between Founders Building and the Erik Jonsson Academic Center. 

It was a scene many years in the making. 

For Grace Bielawski Richards BA’11, that part of campus used to house a cordoned-off, nonfunctional water feature that had become an eyesore. When she arrived on campus as a freshman McDermott Scholar, the atmosphere was a concrete “ghost town,” she recalls. But during her time at UT Dallas, she saw the first phase of a campus transformation begin to dramatically change the landscape before her graduation five years ago. 

Richards has watched from afar as the two-phase Campus Enhancement Project reached completion, representing a $45 million investment since 2008 by longtime supporter Margaret McDermott and other private donors. And just as the transformation project renewed the grounds and the outdoor campus experience, a cadre of new buildings has forever altered the field of sight for anyone walking through UT Dallas. 

“Campus seems more inviting with the integration of the buildings and the landscaping,” Richards says by phone from Washington, D.C., where she works as a lawyer in the Offices of the U.S. Attorneys. “The tone is set as you walk through campus. It makes you want to linger outside a little bit.” 

This fall, the class of 2020 are the first freshmen to attend the University now that the landscape project is considered complete. 

The seven-year overhaul brought an iconic trellis with misters and climbing wisteria, inviting walkways and visiting spots, and signature reflecting pools lined with magnolia trees. But more than its individual features, most agree that the project has given the campus a heart. 

Nondescript Origins 

TI Plaza

The area between Founders Building and the University Theatre was once laden with concrete and featured a nonworking fountain. Today, Texas Instruments Plaza has become the centerpiece of the spot, with stone-edged grassy tiers and a bubbling ground-level fountain.

Before the campus transformation got underway, the early buildings lacked architectural snap and offered little hint of what the interiors might house. Ponderous relics of the ’60s and ’70s, the first structures mimicked the short-lived Brutalist style of architecture that was known for fortress-like exposed concrete construction. The campus had the air of a charmless industrial park. 

Before UT Dallas was established in 1969, the campus was known as the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. There was one building and one parking lot. “You could park right next to the front door,” remembers Dr. John Hoffman, who first worked at the research center and then as a physics professor at UT Dallas. 

Those front-door parking spots no longer exist. Over the years, each new building has forced another parking lot farther into the surrounding acreage that Hoffman remembers as cotton fields. Then, in 1991, freshman and sophomore classes were added, bringing students to the University both day and night. The campus was enlivened. 

But the aesthetic problems multiplied. Insistence on close parking coupled with the University’s continuous construction resulted in a campus of concrete. Acres of parking lots surrounded clusters of buildings. So, the Campus Enhancement Project was created. 

Shortly after McDermott and donors stepped forward, Peter Walker of PWP Landscape Architecture was brought in to help shape the project. When the enhancement project for UT Dallas was first broached, “we were asked to do a little plaza up by the student center to enrich the school,” Walker says. He realized immediately that what was needed was more than a plaza. It called for an entire game plan. 

UT Dallas Magazine
Fall 2016

UT Dallas Magazine, Fall 2016

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The game plan went beyond landscaping, proposing placement of new buildings on a grid and suggesting design elements. 

“There was no focus,” he says. “There was a jumble of buildings built when it was popular to use tan concrete and black glass. The buildings had been put up so fast that there wasn’t any landscape. 

“UT Dallas is an increasingly important part of the UT System, yet it was practically nondescript,” Walker says. “Anyone visiting for the first time would have no memory of it.” 

The Game Plan

So, with a mandate from the University and its benefactors to fix the ugly and bring on the beauty, Walker suggested a two-part landscaping assault that came with a $45 million price tag. 

“A formal expression first, with a continuous vocabulary formed by the trees, walls and benches” is what Walker proposed for the initial phase that would renovate the mall from the center of campus to the south end and the Campbell Road entrance. The first phase, completed in 2010, was built to welcome visitors with an impressive campus entry. 

A more relaxed focus was taken in the second phase, converting the north end of the mall to a parklike environment. That project began in 2013 and wrapped up in 2016. 

“It doesn’t have to be casual like a backyard, but there does have to be something that enables people to move around comfortably,” Walker says of the section that extends to the Administration Building on the north side of campus. 

Fewer and fewer vestiges remain of the concrete canyon. 

Engineering student Emiola Banwo, who has been a student since 2010, has noticed an enormous change in the number of students he sees on campus. He attributes the increased activity to the new landscaping efforts. “It’s beautiful; it’s paradise,” he says.

Read the full article in UT Dallas Magazine.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].