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One year in: From West Union to the Richard H. Brodhead Center for Campus Life

<p>Chronicle File Photo</p>

Chronicle File Photo

In the renovated West Union’s first year back open, the building has become the “epicenter” of student life on campus.

The dining center, which houses 13 eateries by local vendors, reopened on August 29, 2016 following a multi-year, $95 million renovation. The Board of Trustees voted at their May meeting to rename the facility in honor of outgoing University President Richard Brodhead, dubbing the venue the Richard H. Brodhead Center for Campus Life.

“Five years ago, I think most people would have said that the Bryan Center was the center of campus; West Union didn’t feel like a student union building," said Brian Taylor, Trinity ’16 and former chair of Duke University Student Dining Advisory Committee. 

Now however, the building has become the “natural epicenter of campus," Taylor said, especially since most campus eateries are housed there.

The goal of the renovation was to “set a new bar for college dining,” wrote Robert Coffey, executive director of dining services, in an email. To do so, the new West Union brought in specialized kitchen equipment—a custom, round Asian bun and dumpling steamer that is one of four in the nation, a custom pair of copper-clad tandoor ovens, a pair of NitroCream liquid-nitrogen instant ice cream makers and a wood-fired pizza oven, among others.

“The reaction from the Duke community has been overwhelmingly positive, from the look and feel of the facility to the quality and variety of the food and the excellent service,” he wrote.

Coffey noted that the revamped venue has also caught the attention of several national organizations, leading to West Union's inclusion among the “9 Best New University Buildings in the World” by Architectural Digest and Duke's number one ranking in The Daily Meal's 2016 list of the “Best Colleges for Food in America.”

Senior Quinn Steven, co-chair of DUSDAC for the upcoming year, also praised the space for providing “a sense of community” for upperclassmen, similar to what first-year students are able to experience at Marketplace. She said that prior to its reopening there was no singular place on campus where people could eat and regularly expect to run into their friends.

“I think that the West Union solved that issue by really being a center for campus life," Steven said. "I’ve had group meetings in the study rooms upstairs, we have DUSDAC meetings there every week, I’ve studied there with friends until the wee hours of the night, I’ve eaten there—it really is an all-purpose space that serves the community in a way that no space had previously in our time at Duke."

Taylor, who chaired DUSDAC for three years before stepping down at the end of this school year, was able to experience the old West Union as a first-year before construction efforts began in 2013. He explained that prior to renovations, the building lacked usable space and was filled with University offices. Comparing the new against the old, Taylor said he appreciated West Union's student-oriented spaces and emphasis on local food options, as opposed to larger franchises.

“The biggest transition would be that we went away from having one main dining hall and a few chain vendors to having a lot of different, local Durham restaurants there to offer food,” he said.

Il Forno—one of the vendors in the renovated West Union that serves wood-fired pizzas and other Italian fare—has had a particularly successful year, wrote Scott Morse, owner of Brenen's Restaurant Group and operator of Il Forno, in an email.

He noted that their two most popular items have been their artisan pizzas and fresh-made pasta bar, and that while their lunch business has been “slightly” better than their dinner business, both have been very strong.

“Il Forno’s first year inside West Union couldn’t have gone better,” Morse wrote. “It’s hard to imagine, but it actually surpassed my expectations.”

But with West Union now taking the spotlight of the campus food scene, some other vendors said they have taken a hit.

Steve Mosh, owner of the Bryan Center vendor Red Mango, told DUSDAC in February that the smoothie and yogurt shop’s sales have dropped since the newly renovated union opened.

“We took a huge hit, big time—along with everyone else in the Bryan Center,” Mosh said at the time.

The University also faced backlash from food trucks during the academic year, primarily due to Duke's decision to move them away from their original spots in the chapel quad. Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, defended the University's position, noting in an email in September that West Union's reopening played a role in the move. 

Students during the year also lamented the later start hours of Duke's merchants-on-points vendors compared to previous years. However, Coffey explained during a DUSDAC meeting in Oct. that MOP hours in previous years were only provisional, intended to supplement Duke's dining options during West Union's renovation. Taylor added that the MOPs’ hours this year reflected the ones he experienced as a first-year when West Union was previously in operation.

Many other student complaints were brought forth through Duke Student Government's Fix My Campus Facebook page. From complaints that vendors were closing early to questions about more sustainable options for takeout containers, Steven, who is also FMC’s liaison to dining services, noted that the Facebook page has provided a helpful forum.

“A lot of the time, when you are boots-on-the-ground as a student, it really helps you understand what a consumer really has an issue with, rather than just theoretically what a consumer might have an issue with," she said.

Senior Julia Medine, co-chair of DUSDAC for the upcoming year, said that despite some of the setbacks Duke Dining may have faced over the year, she sees the new West Union as a success. Duke Dining's drive to improve the student dining experience has been key to this effort, she added. 

“I do think that at the end of the day, students are pleased with what West Union offers—not just as a lovely space, but also as a wide array of options,” Medine said. “I do think that there are a lot of issues that continue to persist, but what I think is impressive about Duke Dining is that they are never defensive and they never push back when we bring issues to them about West Union, unless their hands are tied.”


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