The Life of the University Student Commons

Over a 32-year history, the University Student Commons has reinvented itself several times.

Have you ever wondered why the University Student Commons has a grand piano upstairs, why the ground is leveled in Common Ground or why certain food services are offered?

The University Student Commons, built in 1984, began with 69,000 square feet. Over time, changes were made as the building was adapted to meet a growing university and student body, which included two major renovations and additions called Phases II and III which occurred in 1993 and 2004, respectively. USC&A Assistant Director of Facilities Bill Cramer said that Phase II of the University Student Commons was a 51,000 square foot renovation and addition which added the area where Break Point Games and Lounge is today. Eleven years later, Phase III’s $9.3 million project involved 35,000 square feet of both renovations and additional space. Today, the University Student Commons totals approximately 125,000 square feet.

I’ve noticed how our design goals for providing comfortable spaces are being used as originally planned. It has been nice to see the modern environmental design we used to build a more accommodating setting are being used as intended,” Cramer said.

Commons Phase Floor Plan
This diagram is of the second level of the University Student Commons. Phase I of the floor plan is shown as A section, Phase II is B section and Phase III is C section.

Yolanda Jackson, USC&A Assistant Director of MCV Campus Programs, has been with the University Student Commons for all 32 years. Jackson remembers the changes Phase II brought such as moving all student services, like Disability Support Services and University Counseling, in one place.

“Phase II allowed for more meeting spaces and centralized services for students. Prior, students had to go all over campus,” Jackson said. “Students hung out more [in the University Student Commons] because they weren’t used to having a central place to hang out and it was new.”

Phase III, completed in 2004, added several office suites including Disability Support Services and Event Meeting Services. The last phase also added the Richmond Salons and renovated the Commons Theater to included seating.

Jackson believes that during each phase change, the University Student Commons has been compatible with the population size.

“Phase changes are done because of student needs for meeting spaces and program spacing. Prior to the (initial building), all events were inside the community room or outside Shafer because there wasn’t enough space. Those areas could accommodate more students and meet their needs,” Jackson said.

The Underground when it opened in 1993.

So what exactly did the University Student Commons look like between each phase change? According to USC&A Retail and Operations Manager Terry Brown, the layout was much different 32 years ago compared to now. Brown, a long-time employee of the Commons, began as a student worker in 1986 and in 1991 became the Campus Event Supervisor until 2004 where he began his current position.

“Throughout my time with the Commons, I have seen the building transform from a new structure to one adapted to encompass ever-changing student needs, fulfilling its role as a hub for student life and meeting growing multi-purpose programming and educational requirements,” Brown said.

The University Student Commons from the Commons Plaza today.

Even today, renovations and additions to the University Student Commons are popping up. A new co-working office called Founder’s Corner, a space for young entrepreneurs to kick-start their businesses, is the most recent renovation completed this semester. This area was previously a student-run art gallery used for student exhibitions which was run by a former committee known as Student Art Space.

In the past 32 years, the University Student Commons has expanded to handle a growing university and is constantly being updated with new technology and innovative areas for students, faculty and staff.

What will the University Student Commons look like in another three decades? The possibilities are almost endless for the ever-changing building.

Did you know?

Fun facts about the University Student Commons:

  • The Commons Theater was a separate building and did not have chairs until Phase III in 2004. Food and drinks were not allowed inside like they are now.
  • Common Ground used to be a “nightclub” that held dances and talent shows, which is why the ground is leveled. VCU students could even purchase beer.
  • In 1992, the University Student Commons was home to several different Campus Dining Services including Burger King, Elliot’s Juices, Columbo Frozen Yogurt, Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, Ben & Jerry’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Itza Pizza Solos.
  • The area today that houses Pizza Hut and Subway used to be the location of Break Point Games and Lounge.
  • The University Student Commons used to have a McDonald’s inside, but students protested it because McDonald’s placed their golden arches right outside the main entrance. Taco Bell was also removed at one point but then brought back.
  • The University Student Commons used to house VCU Fan Fair, a place to purchase university logo items.
  • Now known as P.O.D. Market, the area to get snacks and coffee was formerly known as The Common Market.
  • The performance grand piano outside of the Commonwealth Ballroom is placed in the same area is was 23 years ago, overlooking the Commons Plaza.

    The area we know today as P.O.D. Market used to be VCU Fan Fair, a place for students to purchase university logo items.

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