By SUSAN JONES
Plans for Victory Heights — maybe Pitt’s “worst kept secret,” according to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher — officially debuted to much fanfare last week.
The athletics facilities plan has evolved quite a bit since it was first mentioned in the Campus Master Plan in late 2018. The $250 million project still includes new facilities for many of the non-revenue sports, but the specifics, including about locations, have changed.
The new facilities include:
- A 3,500-seat arena for gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling — all now practice and/or compete in the Fitzgerald Field House — along with an athletic performance center. One building will house both of these facilities and wil be located in the lawn area next to the Petersen Events Center.
- A building with an indoor track and field area and space for the Pitt band to practice, along with the dance and cheer squads, which will be located where the Pitt Sports Dome is now.
- A lacrosse venue, next to the Petersen Sport Complex, where the OC parking lot is located.
Athletic Director Heather Lyke has been talking about making these improvements since she came to Pitt in 2017. But coaches, who have heard about big plans like this before, were rightfully skeptical.
“Today is about keeping our promises to provide students what they need to be successful,” Gallagher said. “I have to confess that this is not the first time that Pitt has proposed big dramatic plans to support Pitt Athletics. … The problem is they weren’t realized.
“This constitutes a dramatic reshaping of the environment of Pitt Athletics, and University of Pittsburgh is fully committed to seeing this vision realized.”
Specifically, Lyke and Gallagher said they were keeping their promise to 97-year-old Pitt alumnus Herb Douglas, who won the bronze medal in the long jump at the 1948 London Summer Olympic Games, to provide on-campus track facilities. Douglas is the oldest living Olympian, part of the Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame and a member of the Board of Trustees.
“It has been Herb’s job to be the conscious of this project,” Gallagher said. “He has reminded us frequently of our commitment to support all of our student athletes, including those who have had no facilities to call their own.”
Lyke has previously said she was stunned that Pitt had no track and had not hosted an on-campus track meet in more than 20 years.
Early in her time at Pitt, Lyke said she took Board of Trustees members on a tour of Fitzgerald Field House, which has no air conditioning. “It was a hot day in August, perfectly timed in temperature … I know that our board realized that this was not the ideal teaching environment for our student athletes.”
Lyke said that the ACC is the most competitive division, both athletically and academically, and “we have not yet performed in all our 19 sports where we want to be.”
“Victory Heights is our demonstrated commitment to comprehensive excellence,” Lyke said. It also will expand Pitt’s outreach into the community by giving it the ability to host championships, camps and clinics. “Victory Heights will transform our student-athlete experience.”
Five things you need to know about Victory Heights
The announcement on Jan. 14 got significant media attention (check out the Pitt News for a thorough synopsis of the plans), so we thought we’d take a look at some facts that might have gotten overlooked in the coverage.
1. What teams will see the biggest impact?
“These projects will have a direct impact on the largest percentage of our Pitt athletes,” Gallagher said.
The new facilities will house 16 of Pitt’s 19 teams (excluding football and men’s and women’s basketball), impacting 84 percent of the University’s student athletes. In addition to training and competition spaces, the buildings will house sports medicine, nutrition and mental health programs.
Several coaches of Pitt’s non-revenue sports were rightfully excited about the new facilities.
“This shows the University cares about all its student athletes and not just one or two sports,” said Dan Fisher, coach of the women’s volleyball team that has taken the ACC championship three years in a row. He said there are times they lift weights in the field house and then have to trudge through the snow to the Petersen center to practice, but have to warm up again before playing.
The wrestling team often has to practice in shifts because of limited space, said coach Keith Gavin.
The Pitt Varsity Marching Band and its 305 members currently rehearse at either the Sports Dome or the Cost Center, but they do not have a place to sit down and practice music, according to Brad Townsend, director of bands. Instruments are stored in a room on the ground floor of Trees Hall. The new building will have a rehearsal hall, designated storage and a new marching rehearsal space.
“This new facility is just huge for us,” Townsend said. “We are all just over the moon about Victory Heights. This has been a need for so long, and for the University to make such a commitment to the band means a lot to the students and alums of the band program. This will transform the way we run the band, improve our performances and provide the kind of experience band students at Pitt deserve.”
2. Where will the money come from?
Chancellor Gallagher said the University will pay for the $250 million in building projects through debt financing, and simultaneously be raising money through donations to offset the cost.
Lyke said 10 member of the Champions Advisory Board — a group of 21 alumni, corporate stakeholders, Pitt parents, philanthropists, former student-athletes and thought leaders formed by the athletic director in 2018 to advise the department — had already given six and seven figures donations.
At a news conference after the announcement, Lyke said they are just getting started on fundraising, but the project is not contingent on a certain percentage being raised.
“In the face of failed past promises to do this, it was an important step to make this commitment,” Gallagher said. “That being said, we pay back debts. … If the fundraising isn’t there, that’s kind of a tax on our future. … We actually think the donor base and fan base of the University of Pittsburgh are going to be really excited about this.”
3. What’s the timeline?
Some of the timing of the Victory Heights projects is tied to all the other construction going on around campus, Gallagher said, such as chiller plants and other infrastructure. “When you’re in a dense urban environment, it’s like dominos, one project impacts the others.”
First up will be the new arena and sports performance complex next to the Petersen Events Center. Lyke said they are immediately starting on the design process and plan to break ground in summer 2021 and open in fall 2023.
The indoor track and band facility are about a year behind that. And the lacrosse project will be last.
4. What facilities will be going away?
- The lawn next to the Petersen Events Center has been a gathering place for Pitt freshmen following convocation for several years and an outdoor green space for upper campus. There has been talk about building more green space built into the hillside near the planned new recreation center on O’Hara Street. The lawn also is the home of Pitt’s first rain garden, which soaks up excess rainwater and naturally infiltrates it into the soil. The garden was designed and built in 2011 by student members of Engineers for a Sustainable World, with support from the University’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. No word on how the rain garden would be impacted
- The OC Lot site was originally listed in the Campus Master Plan as a possible site for the sports performance center. Even though construction of the lacrosse facility is a few years away, it’s not a surprise that the 600 spots in this Pitt lot will be going away. Pitt has repeatedly said that the master plan calls for no net loss in parking spaces, even though the O’Hara Garage will be torn down starting in May. There are already plans to absorb those cars into other lots.
- The Pitt Sports Dome opened in 2017. The $13.2 million project, funded by the Division of Student Affairs, features an air-supported structure that houses a full-size football/soccer/lacrosse field, as well as three outdoor playing fields. The facility is primarily used for student activities such as intramural sports leagues, open recreation and student-run club sports teams. The new rec center should be completed by the time the dome closes in 2022. The Industrial Fabrics Association International says domes like Pitt’s can last 20 to 25 years.
5. What about Fitzgerald Field House and Trees Hall?
Both Lyke and Gallagher said no decisions have been made about Fitzgerald Field House and Trees Hall.
In the initial Campus Master Plan, the field house site had been designated as flex space for future academic and athletic programs or student housing, with provisions for parking in the hillside. Lyke said it’s unlikely it would be needed for athletics programming.
- The Fitzgerald Field House — named for Rufus Fitzgerald, the University’s chancellor from 1945 to 1955 — was built in 1951 and housed the men’s and women’s basketball programs until 2002, when the Petersen Events Center opened. It currently is a competition and training space for volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling, has an indoor track and offices for coaches of 16 sports. It has hosted the 1957 NCAA men’s wrestling championship, the 1963 NCAA men’s gymnastics championship and a speech by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
- Trees Hall, which opened in 1962, is home to the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams and the 12,000-square-foot Gymnastics Training Center, which opened in 2004. It also houses rec facilities for students, faculty and staff, including a pool, dance studio, weight room, racquetball and handball courts, five basketball/volleyball courts, climbing wall, golf practice area and classrooms. It underwent renovations in 1999, 2004 and 2008. The facility is named for Pitt alumnus Joseph Clifton Trees (M.E. 1895) who donated $100,000 for the construction of the original Trees Gymnasium in 1912. Moving the gymnastics team to the new arena would free up considerable space at Trees, but there are no plans for it yet.
What people are saying
Andy Stephany, president of Staff Council: “I think it’s pretty exciting, as an alumnus. I’m a fan of all the different sports programs. I think that the new facilities are going to give the sports teams a lot of opportunities to compete. As a staff member, I think it’s going to provide a little bit more visibility to those athletics programs.”
Chris Bonneau, Senate Council president: “I think if you look at the Fitzgerald Field House and the facilities there with everything, it’s past its prime — no air conditioning. If we’re going to give our student athletes the resources they need to succeed, we’ve got to do something about that. I think it’s a good use of existing land that we have and repurposing some things.”
Alonzo Webb, coach of Pitt’s track and field/cross country programs: Webb said he’s been promised a facility by numerous athletic directors over the years, “But now with Heather, it’s actually happening. ... And it’s going to make a big difference for us."
Keith Gavin, wrestling team coach: “I’ve been a part of a couple different athletic departments, and there are always ideas out there. Actually executing the ideas is what sets this one apart. I expect it to be a game-changer. It’s really one of the only things that we’re missing.”
Samantha Snider, gymnastics coach: “It’s going to set our program apart because there are not many schools across the country that invest in gymnastics facilities the way Pitt athletics is going to.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.
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