- Associated Press - Saturday, March 25, 2017

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) - The University of Virginia has taken a step forward in a larger push to curb student drinking with the opening of a no-alcohol student lounge on the Corner.

“So many of our students spend so much time on the Corner, and this is the opportunity to have something on the Corner that is not alcohol-related,” said Patrick D. Hogan, chief operating officer at UVa, at a ceremony last week christening the 15,000-square-foot space that is called simply 1515.

“I hope to come here and see lots of students taking advantage of a healthy and fun environment,” Hogan said.

It was an exciting occasion for the university, but its origins lie in the 2014 Rolling Stone fiasco that many people would rather forget.

Shortly after the release of a Rolling Stone article - now discredited - on sexual assault at UVa, Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the university, convened an ad hoc committee aimed at curbing the problem and encouraging victims to report assaults to police.



One aspect the committee looked at was curbing drinking, which administrators say is connected to campus sexual assault. One of the most common complaints, Sullivan said, was that there was nothing to do for students who didn’t want to drink on the weekends.

Students also have generally complained, Sullivan said, about a lack of space for clubs and activities.

“This is going to help answer all of those needs,” she said.

UVa has actively looked for new ways to reduce drinking on Grounds. Sullivan and other administrators have urged students to stay away from the Wertland Street Block Party, a raucous outdoor affair traditionally held at the beginning of the year.

Concerts and game nights have been set up to divert students from drinking during the first weekends of the year, which the administration considers crucial for helping students find social activities outside of bars and fraternity keggers.

The new lounge is the latest attempt to distract students from the drinking scene.

The student activity space takes up all three floors of the building at 1515 University Ave. The first floor looks like a hipster coffee shop, complete with a small stage and student art decorating the walls. The basement is a game room with arcade and tabletop games, as well as a general meeting space.

The old apartments on the upper level have been converted into meeting and study spaces, including a meditation room.

James Zehmer, the project manager, said the point was to create a student escape that did not feel like school.

“The character of the space was to be eclectic,” he said. “If you come in here and don’t feel like you’re in a UVa building, we’ve done our job.”

The building has hosted many businesses over the years - most recently a used bookstore. UVa pumped $4.9 million into renovating the building - which was raised completely from private donations - partly from the Class of 1992 and from the Parents’ Association. Money from annual student fees paid by all students will cover operational costs, said Colette Sheehy, the university’s vice president for management and budget.

The university has entered a 10-year lease-to-own agreement with the owners, the Lloyd family, who ran a drugstore out of the building for four decades.

The building is open from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily for students only, giving them a safe place to pass the time at night.

Students played a major role in determining the way the space would be used. The use of gender-neutral bathrooms and the inclusion of a meditation space reflect two areas of concern for many students - transgender rights and mental health.

John Bond, a fourth-year student who helped with the planning process as part of the inaugural class of the Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership program, said they wanted it to be an “inclusive” space that is “alcohol-free and promotes mental health.”

“Looking around the building, I think we hit on all of those points,” he said.

But students won’t be free from scrutiny. The facility will include UVa security guards posted outside. Hogan stressed that they’re not there to search or hassle anyone but to keep order. When asked what would stop the students from smuggling in alcohol, administrators said they believe students will follow the rules and uphold the Honor Code (which comes with the prospect of expulsion for lying, cheating or stealing).

“We’re hopeful the students will come here and hang out,” said Alison White, director of marketing with the Office of the Dean of Students. “What they do with that space is up to them.”

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Information from: The Daily Progress, https://www.dailyprogress.com

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