Paresky closes for late-night hours

The Paresky Center, widely considered the nucleus of student life, now sends students home and locks its doors from 2 to 7 a.m. The change, which took effect on Jan. 2, eliminated the all-hours card swipe access that students had enjoyed since the student center opened last February.

“We started looking this past fall at the number of people using the building from about 2 till 7 a.m.,” said Doug Schiazza, director of campus life. According to Schiazza, Campus Safety and Security officers conducted counts in Paresky almost every night from late October to early December, an average of two or three times a night. “We hardly ever had more than 10 students, quite often just three or four,” he said.

In light of this data, the Paresky operations advisory group – a standing committee made up of staff from facilities, security, dining services and campus life, as well as student representatives – recommended that Paresky hours be changed. Schiazza, representing the advisory group, posted a Daily Messages on Dec. 13 announcing the change.

“We’re trying as a campus to be responsible about energy usage,” Schiazza said. “We just couldn’t justify keeping this 72,000 square foot building open.” He emphasized that there are a number of smaller spaces available 24 hours and listed them in the Daily Message. Two new venues on the list are classrooms in the Hopkins Hall basement, which is already used by security throughout the night.

Extended hours will be offered during finals reading periods to accommodate the anticipated spike in demand.

Schiazza said that when Paresky was in the design phase, he was “one of the loudest advocates for keeping it open 24/7,” despite concerns that major behavioral problems would occur in the wee hours. While these concerns diminished over time, sustainability issues did not. “It was hard for me to come around to that, but I had to concede it,” he said.

Not all in the Paresky advisory group made that concession. Samantha Peterson ’08, who was hired as a student manager of Goodrich last year, was among those who voted against restricted hours. “I didn’t think the sustainability argument was enough to justify closing it,” she said. “We need a central, open and well-lit space that students can be comfortable in.” She added that the alternative spaces generally feel more enclosed and are dimly lit.

Although Paresky’s predecessor, Baxter Hall, observed a schedule similar to the current 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. schedule, students had the option of going to the centrally located Goodrich Hall, which was open 24 hours a day before it was closed for extensive renovations last May. Peterson noted that with the closure of Goodrich, students lost a space for both studying and socializing. “Paresky doesn’t quite fill that gap, and closing it at night will add to that problem,” she said.

While Peterson agrees that more student input should have gone into the discussion, she believes that the advisory group made the decision in the most efficient way it could. “I want people to understand that it was a hard decision and we devoted it a lot of time and thought to it,” she said, expressing optimism that the hours could be re-extended if campus opinion overwhelmingly called for a revision, for example through a campus-wide forum.

While such a forum has yet to materialize, some Ephs have debated the issue on a Williams Students Online (WSO) discussion board. “I’ve left Paresky at 4 or 5 a.m. countless times, and never have I been the last person to leave,” said Julian Mesri ’09, who started the WSO thread. “I believe in sustainability, but the reasons given don’t justify the fact that we’re losing a place to do work after the libraries close. A lot of people really use the hell out of Paresky, especially those who can’t really work in their rooms.”

While Mesri affirmed the importance of sustainability and the presence of larger issues at stake in the world, he said that “Williams needs to see radical action taken about something.” For him, that radical action may eventually take the form of a sit-in. “I’m not one to pick petty fights, but this is one I care about,” Mesri said. “It’s a student center, where students can be students. We should have the right to use it whenever we want to.”

In light of such sentiments, advisory committee member Kim Dacres ’08 was in favor of keeping Paresky open. “I was really thinking in terms in student interest,” said Dacres, who was invited to the advisory group as a former Goodrich student manager and also serves as College Council co-president. “However, in terms of sustainability and conserving energy, clearly keeping a 72,000 square foot building open all night would be a contradiction,” she said, adding that it came down to a “pretty close” vote.

Nevertheless, Dacres noted that Paresky is not utilized solely by students. “It also has a lot of administrative offices,” she said. “As much as Paresky belongs to students, it also belongs to people who work there.” Schiazza similarly observed that faculty members as well as their families frequent Paresky. “It really seems like the building has been a big hit,” he said.

Another testament to Paresky’s popularity is the breadth of conservation alternatives that students are discussing informally out of a desire to keep the student center open. Many suggest turning down the heating and lighting in Paresky without locking its doors, keeping high-traffic areas of Paresky open while shortening the hours of other 24-hour venues – for example, the ’62 Center and Driscoll Lounge – to offset the energy usage, or closing Paresky at 3 or 4 a.m. instead. “We can do a lot to make buildings more efficient and sustainable, but we do need spaces to study,” said Diana Jaffe ’08.

While advisory board members emphasize that a host of factors, such as heating system mechanics and custodial schedules, are involved, many feel that these factors should be brought to public discourse. “I think the primary issue is really to get those numbers on the table,” Jaffe said. “We need to know what it is that we’re giving up and whether it’s worth the change.”

Figures for energy usage for individual buildings is not yet available, but should be within a month. “We are in the process of improving our sub-metering for individual buildings so that we can receive real-time data and better analyze that data,” said Irene Addison, associate vice president for facilities and auxiliary services. “We currently read meters on a monthly basis so we don’t have complete information for comparison yet.”

Nevertheless, Addison said that there are unquestionable energy savings from closing the building for several hours each evening, through lighting controls and reducing heat. “If we were going to keep the temperature at an occupied setting during off-hours in selected areas of the building, it would still require us to operate large air handling units for a small area so much of the energy savings would be lost,” she said.

Jaffe, who was on CC’s Paresky subcommittee that met last spring to help synthesize a philosophy for this new campus space, said she was “distressed” by the new hours, which she became aware of through the Daily Message. “It really wasn’t a decision that we made,” she said. “We should have been given more of a say.”

CC co-president Morgan Goodwin ’08, who also sits on the Paresky advisory group, acknowledged that concern. “We had a lot on our plates last semester, especially alcohol policy, and I accept that this is an example of something we should have gotten more feedback on,” he said.

Goodwin, who is also a leader of the campus environmental group Thursday Night Grassroots, supports the change. “I definitely agree with the need to close the building if it’s really getting that little use,” he said. “Given the numbers, and given our clear responsibility to think about our energy use, even the possibility of a free student space open all the time, if it isn’t being used, doesn’t seem justified in my mind.”

Nevertheless, Goodwin said that he is “definitely open to lots of possibilities,” adding that he would like to see more students involved in the general programming of Paresky. “It’s used by a lot of students, but we aren’t taking a lot of ownership,” he said. “I’d be much happier to see students, rather than administrators, start researching where else we can make efficiency gains to offset extended hours in Paresky.”

Dean Merrill echoed his sentiments. “We need to look into what would be ideal 24-hour spaces for students, and then try to bring these in line with our sustainability goals,” she said, admitting that the current all-hours locations are “a weird constellation of buildings.”

According to Merrill, students have raised questions about conducting a review of the energy usage of all the 24-hour buildings in school. “It’s something that we should be doing, if we’ve got the necessary metering,” she said. “I’d like to see students working with Stephanie Boyd [acting director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives] on this kind of reviewing.”

Like Dacres, Merrill notes that students do not have complete sovereignty over Paresky. “It certainly wasn’t imagined as an autonomous space the way Goodrich was, where student decisions would largely determine operations,” she said. “We spend a lot of time and attention thinking about what students want and need, but there are certain limits, among them alcohol use and the ratio of student demand to electrical use.”

“I also urge students to think about how they’re members of a community that has really embraced environmental contributions,” Merrill said.