Jim Walczyk, the director of Recreation at the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNC Charlotte), shares how CannonDesign and Jenkins Peer partnered up to create their state-of-the-art recreation facility.
In early 2020, UNC Charlotte opened its first-ever campus facility solely dedicated to health and recreation. The UNC Charlotte University Recreation Center is a dynamic hub for student health and recreation, offering students a wide variety of recreation opportunities thanks to multi-purpose courts, indoor and outdoor pools, group fitness studios, a cycling studio, an elevated running/walking track, space for cardiovascular and weight training, and more. The state-of-the-art facility was designed by CannonDesign in association with Jenkins Peer Architects.
To celebrate this significant milestone for UNC Charlotte, Campus Rec Magazine recently spoke with Jim Walczyk, the school’s director of University Recreation, to talk about the facility, what it took to make it a reality and much more.
CR: Can you talk about programming and the early stages of planning and design?
Jim Walczyk: We had an exciting programming period for this project. Beyond the typical feasibility study to support the creation of the recreation center, there were key issues we needed to deal with right away. There were immediate questions around if our recreation center could share the site with an academic building and how our recreation facility might accommodate a competitive swimming pool for the university.
Our collective team did a fantastic job navigating all of this. We engaged stakeholders extensively. We visited other facilities across the country and talked with their teams for key lessons learned. Our decisions were ultimately driven by the fact we may need further expansion. UNC Charlotte’s enrollment growth has been steady, now in the near 30,000-plus annually, and recreation trends are ever-changing We needed a dedicated student facility prepared to grow and adapt with our university.
Recognizing this, we chose to move forward with this fantastic recreation center for the site. The entire team — staff, designers, all stakeholders — did a remarkable job considering different options and scenarios during programming that made the project stronger overall.
CR: What are the driving goals of the project?
JW: We had clear goals for this project from the start that truly guided us through the project, including:
- Budget and Timeline: We ensured we met these key measures of success to keep the project advancing toward success.
- Listening to Students and Expanding Resources: Rewind a few years and our students and recreation services had simply outgrown our previous shared spaces. Students were having to wait for equipment and it was getting to the point where students were looking toward off-campus gyms and fitness centers. Talking with our students about this project, they wanted expanded and dedicated resources. They wanted to know they could stop in and play basketball or lift weights whenever they choose and they wouldn’t be competing with athletics or academic departments.
- Plan for the Future: It was important to us that we think about the future of UNC Charlotte and this facility. We worked hard to create a space that can flex, evolve, adapt and even grow if necessitated. We also worked to create a synergistic facility. For example, this building is very close to our student union. Given this proximity, we said, “Let’s create a complementary building, not one with redundant student services and resources.”
- Change the Culture: Our team felt it imperative the facility we create be able to help us strengthen UNC Charlotte’s culture of health and wellness. We also wanted to ensure students were front and center of the project. That’s why we engaged them so deeply in the design process, displayed photos of them throughout the building and took their ideas to heart in the graphics in the building. We wanted to create a university recreation center where everyone could see themselves.
I’m proud to say the new University Recreation Center achieves all of these goals and empowers us as a recreation department and institution like never before.
CR: How do you believe the center will bring new energy to University Recreation?
JW: I indicated how close the student union and this new recreation building are to one another, and the building is also within the academic corridor. We’ve truly created a student zone on campus. While in this zone, you can eat, study, go to the bookstore, drop in for a workout, socialize and more. This collision of positive student experiences creates inherent buzz on campus and you can feel it.
More than that, this space is dedicated to recreation. When we were in shared facilities, there were challenges with the hours our students could use them for recreational activities. But now, it’s every day, all the time. The building is always buzzing with energy as a result. This is truly a student-focused building. Beyond the dynamic spaces, it has a graphic package heavily based on students and their goals. It’s really their building.
CR: What do students and staff love most about the University Recreation Center?
JW: It’s the incredible variety of recreation and fitness opportunities. Walking through our facility, we have different zones. We have an incredible array of cardio and strength machines, we have a turf playground area with sandbags, and more functional training tools. They love it.
We invested in a variety of and top-line equipment on purpose. We want our students to have great experiences. We want them to leave our institution informed about health and fitness. We want them to be smart consumers when they graduate and seek their own gyms to join.
In regard to our staff, they just love how this facility grows our impact on campus. We’re able to create new opportunities, offer entirely new programs, hire more students and work with more students. It’s a dream come true for our team.
CR: How does the project build on UNC Charlotte’s commitment to forging a healthy campus culture and student body?
JW: The University Recreation Center just strengthens UNC Charlotte’s commitment. We already have an outstanding student health center, a dedicated counseling center, and the recreation building is another key piece in the health and well-being equation on campus.
Having this dedicated facility allows us to collaborate with our internal partners like the student union, academic units like kinesiology, our wellness promotions group, dining services and more in abundant new ways. It all adds up to a better student experience and better student health, which we know translates to better student success. This building is an incredible asset, and it will help our team create new opportunities for students to thrive. What this building makes possible for our department is incredible and we need to seize that opportunity.
CR: What was the best part of working with the CannonDesign and Jenkins Peer team on this project?
JW: We were incredibly fortunate to have the design partners we did. To be able to connect CannonDesign’s national expertise with Jenkins Peer’s strong local presence and history on our campus was just incredible. Even better, Colleen McKenna, the leader of CannonDesign’s Sports, Recreation and Wellness practice, is a UNC Charlotte alum. This created a cohesive team and culture of success for the project that helped us develop a vision and see it through.
This is the second recreation center project I’ve taken on in my career across the country along with several smaller projects. I’ve worked with many different teams and the team of CannonDesign and Jenkins Peer impressed me. Communication, feedback, engagement, creativity — they did it all and we couldn’t have asked for a better team.