The Evolving Community College

The modern community college is nothing like your parents’ community college. LPA designers have spent decades working with institutions to develop a new generation of campuses to meet the shifting needs of colleges, educators and students.

Once referred to as junior colleges, community colleges have graduated, you might say. From modest institutions, they have grown into diverse, engaging hubs of higher learning and essential resources in the communities they serve.

Many trace their roots to the years after World War II, when community colleges helped educate millions and provided an affordable pathway to four-year universities or a career. Older campuses were often spartan, with small-scale classroom buildings — in many cases, concrete and largely windowless — surrounded by parking lots. Students were meant to drive up, go to class and leave; campuses would empty as soon as classes ended.

Today, a new generation of buildings is transforming the community college experience, offering students places to connect, socialize and expand their global perspective.

“There's been a big change, not just in terms of what community colleges look like, but how they function,” says LPA Design Director Franco Brown, who has worked on a wide variety of award-winning community college projects. “Today, the buildings we design for these clients rival and often exceed the quality and amenities of facilities previously seen only at large universities. That brings a renewed sense of pride in attending a community college.”

For years, LPA architects, designers, engineers and landscape architects have been working with educators, students and communities to develop campuses that reflect the expanding role of the community college. Campuses handle the issues and challenges facing the evolving role of the two-year public colleges in different ways, from creating on-campus communities and cutting energy costs to supporting long-term health and wellness.

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At Los Angeles Valley College, the Monarch Center houses a student lounge, cafeteria and bookstore, among other amenities.


Los Angeles Valley College was founded in 1949 to meet the tremendous growth of the San Fernando Valley. Originally located on the campus of Van Nuys High School, the college moved to a 105-acre site in Valley Glen in 1951 and gradually grew through years of bungalows and temporary facilities into a thriving campus. The modern institution serves more than 18,000 students and has more than 200 full-time faculty.

In 2016, L.A. Valley, traditionally known as a commuter campus, moved in a new direction with the opening of the Monarch Center, a two-story, 66,000-square-foot student hub in the heart of the campus. The center, a locally funded student union, is home to a student lounge, cafeteria, bookstore, convenience store, student health center and administrative offices, as well as spaces for student clubs and intentional areas to gather, study and socialize. An open floor plan and walls of glass blur the boundaries between exterior and interior, and a “skybox” with a solar umbrella is elevated to extend over the main entry court, providing panoramic views of the campus.

The center and a sustainable park created a new home for students, helping to transform the character from a commuter campus to a collegiate campus. There was a measurable shift in the campus dynamics. Instead of leaving campus or spending time in their cars, students and faculty gravitated toward the Monarch Center, fulfilling the college’s mission to engage students for longer periods to support their goals of earning a degree. Their time between classes is no longer residual, but qualitative. The designs intentionally respond to these interstitial times with programmatic magnets such as food, coffee, study areas and social spaces.

They are able to study, hang out and enjoy a meal with fellow students and faculty. It’s also a centrally located place to buy books and supplies as well as college-branded merchandise.”

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At Palomar College, the Learning Resource Center rethinks the role of a traditional library.

“Students feel like they're part of a collegiate environment,” says Steve Flanagan, LPA’s Director of Higher Education. “They are able to study, hang out and enjoy a meal with fellow students and faculty. It’s also a centrally located place to buy books and supplies as well as college-branded merchandise.”

As community colleges have grown, they increasingly have had to develop places that help students connect, bringing together multiple functions and diverse populations. New facilities are able to address academic, social and cultural goals, creating a sense of place for the campuses and serving as magnets to attract different communities.

LPA has worked on 18 projects for Palomar College, helping to weave together a new campus that supports the college’s growing efforts to keep students on campus and find new ways to engage them in student life. The latest project, the Learning Resource Center, is a modern reinterpretation of a library. The 85,000-square-foot facility includes not only book stacks but also a tutoring center and academic technology center. An extended entry serves as a courtyard for the surrounding campus buildings and combines seating areas with drought-resistant landscaping, satisfying the client’s desire for the whole campus to function as an arboretum. An amphitheater with terraced seating features a stormwater-biofiltration basin.

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An extended entry plaza provides seating areas amid drought-tolerant landscaping.

LPA’s landscape architects have played a key role in the development of the Palomar campus, developing outdoor spaces that unite the different buildings.

“I think the trend is really that these spaces between the buildings define the campus,” explains Rich Bienvenu, LPA’s Director of Landscape Architecture. “LPA’s approach has always been, ‘How do you program the landscape just like you would the interiors of your building?’”

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Cypress College’s new Science, Engineering and Mathematics building, centered around a courtyard, is designed as a collaboration hub.


As community colleges evolve, they are playing a larger role as a facilitator, connecting students with one another and resources from the community and workforce partnerships. Traditionally focused on developing a career path for students, colleges have expanded their mission beyond vocations to include hands-on training in science, technology, math, engineering and the arts. Facilities that support collaboration and blend diverse learning environments have been a key aspect of the growth of community colleges in recent years.

On the campus of Orange Coast College, in Costa Mesa, California — a campus that thrived in the ‘50s with a series of single-story buildings designed by renowned midcentury-modern architect Richard Neutra — LPA designed the 191,000-square-foot Mathematics, Business and Computing Center, which houses offices, lecture halls and laboratory space for each of the three departments. The building, completed in 2015, became the center for the college’s focus on technology and business, with distinctive covered walkways designed to make circulation part of the shared experience, while applying Neutra’s concepts of indoor-outdoor integration..

On the same campus, a two-story, 75,000-square-foot, multidisciplinary facility was designed to accommodate Orange Coast’s departments of allied health sciences, family and consumer sciences and biological sciences, creating a flexible environment to support the unique curriculum.

“The trend is really toward bringing different disciplines together,” Flanagan says. “Instead of stand-alone buildings dedicated to individual disciplines, we are now designing STEAM projects where science, technology, engineering, art and math are co-located so they can create interdisciplinary synergies. That’s how innovation occurs, when different disciplines commingle and cross-pollinate to make unexpected discoveries.”

The new LPA-designed Science, Engineering and Mathematics building at Cypress College in Cypress, California, is also designed as a collaboration hub, centered around a multistory inner courtyard with laboratory and classroom spaces opening directly onto the shared outdoor space. It creates an important new environment for a college focused on keeping students more engaged and centered on achieving their goals and degrees in a timely manner. The courtyard’s landscape was designed to be viewed from above and to be a metaphor for a view into the cells on a plant leaf.

“You can have students from biology, geology and the earth sciences bringing their experiments out into the courtyard, making it an extension of the labs,” says Winston Bao, LPA’s Director of Programming + Furniture Services. “But then after class, the courtyard also becomes a hangout or study space.”

Research supports the importance of those social and academic collaborative experiences in addressing the school’s larger academic goals. “When students can be comfortable collaborating and supporting each other, that’s often when the most impactful learning happens,” Bao says.

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Community colleges are developing programs that are meeting community needs for science and technology education.


With demand growing, community colleges are expanding beyond their campus borders to look for new ways to reach students. Extended learning centers and campuses are becoming an increasingly important part of the strategies.

The process of designing these new facilities or renovating existing structures can pose unique challenges for districts and designers. The facilities must represent the district/college’s brand, goals and campus experience, even though the building may have been originally intended for an office park or retail center.

“It's about tryifng to create a campus-in-a-building or a rich collegiate environment within the one site,” Brown says. “It just may be a rooftop deck or a courtyard instead of the traditional quad, but the importance of outdoor spaces and transitional spaces is even greater as a result.”

Centennial Plaza, a downtown campus of Riverside City College, has helped to rejuvenate the city’s downtown center. On a full city block, LPA designed a trio of buildings with complementary uses. The centerpiece is the four-story, 60,000-square-foot Culinary Arts Academy and District Office, which includes a culinary school on the ground floor with a bakery and 116-seat restaurant open to the public. The complex also includes the Coil School for the Arts, with a 450-seat concert hall and adjacent parking structure. Next door, a historic, 1920s Baroque-style bank building, long vacant, was renovated as the Riverside Community College District’s Center for Social Justice & Civil Liberties, including an art gallery and museum exhibition space. “There’s a lot of synergy downtown now,” Bao says. “They're having shows and events in the concert hall, and the art gallery, museum and culinary arts restaurant make a perfect partner for that.”

In 2014, Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley, California, expanded by adding a stand-alone campus in Newport Beach Located on a site with an unobstructed ocean view, the 66,800-square-foot building steps from a one-story façade on the west to a three-story building on the east. LPA designed an outdoor terrace on the west side, overlooking an adjacent nature preserve with ocean views to the southwest. A three-story atrium fronts the outdoor terrace and serves as the building’s circulation spine; its two-story curtain wall and faceted window pattern create a naturally ventilated but protected two-story lobby space. The campus takes advantage of ocean breezes to naturally cool and ventilate the interior while its green roof, living walls, stormwater management and drought-tolerant plantings help to create a lush, park-like environment. The idea was to elevate the campus quad to the roof and blur the line between building and landscape.

“We brought the spirit of the landscaped spaces inside,” says Rich Bienvenu, LPA Director of Landscape Architecture. “I think that’s really the trend: hybrid spaces where you feel like you’re outside, but you’re still shaded and protected by the building. Students need places to recharge, reconnect and reset before the next class.”

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New art complexes at community colleges rival the quality and amenities of facilities previously seen only at large universities.


The growth of community college campuses has also brought increased focus on energy efficiency and sustainability. In many cases, the institutions have been faced with tough choices about whether to tear down older buildings, legacies of their roots, or renovate them to modern standards.

On the campus of West Valley College in Saratoga, California, LPA designers have spent years working with administrators, faculty and students to evaluate their facilities and find opportunities to save aging structures, recognizing that reusing existing materials is often the most sustainable approach. Several structures were saved and cost-effectively renovated into efficient, modern facilities that support the programming and cut energy costs, while meeting current building codes, seismic requirements and ADA standards.

The Cilker School of Art and Design on this campus was transformed from a dark, 1960s-era classroom building into an open, LEED Gold building to support the design, engineering and healthcare programs. It also features a child development and career center. Abundant natural light, advanced lighting controls and individually zoned HVAC systems helped cut energy use by 71%.

The design for the Fang Pei Che School of Professional Studies building next door preserved and reused the existing concrete, steel and wood structures, while creating a completely new, open facility. Increased daylighting, new high-efficiency zoned HVAC systems, LED lighting and a connection to photovoltaic panels installed on campus contributed to a reduction in energy use of more than 90%.

The landscaping for both of these projects moved the campus away from outdated swaths of lawn and incorporated native and drought-tolerant gardens, as well as stormwater-biofiltration basins.

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Laboratory and classroom spaces in Cypress College’s new SEM building open onto the inner courtyard.


Across the community college system, these new and reimagined facilities have transformed the campuses and positioned them for the future. At a time when many classes have been held remotely, these facilities provide a reason for students to return to campus, providing choice as a new model for learning.

“We want these buildings to be a magnet to draw students to campus and keep them there,” Brown says. “We need to create face-to-face environments that reward students with mentorships, friendships and a collegial atmosphere that will inspire today’s students to be tomorrow’s leaders.”

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Los Medanos College Kinesiology & Athletics Complex


As community colleges strive to find better ways to engage students on campus, new facilities are merging athletic, physical education and academic spaces to expand programming and support the long-term health and wellness of students and faculty.

LPA Sport + Rec designers have been collaborating with institutions to develop centers that build on traditional athletic programs and add new services to fit the needs of the campus. By bringing together different functions, this new generation of facilities is finding efficiencies, saving money and creating a support structure that wasn’t part of the traditional community college campus.

“We are rethinking how facilities supports programming,” said LPA Director of Higher Education Steve Flanagan. “Any building today should be able to support multiple roles.”

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Los Medanos College Kinesiology & Athletics Complex

A new complex for Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, California, brings together kinesiology, recreation and athletics in an efficient building that maximized the space for all programs and cut energy use by 79% from the industry baseline. The LEED Gold complex was developed in conjunction with a new two-story student union, transforming the core of the campus into a new “living room” for the campus and a vibrant center for health and wellness. The two buildings are linked by a landscaped quad with a variety of programmed outdoor spaces, drought-tolerant plant life and a sustainable water management system.

“The role of recreation and athletic facilities has gone beyond a gym and some locker rooms,” LPA Director of Sport + Recreation Arash Izadi. “We can expand academic kinesiology and fitness programs and connect them to the larger holistic wellness goals for the campus.”

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Santa Barbara City College Physical Education Building

Izadi is working with Santa Barbara City College on that will rework the idea of a recreation center, including kinesiology and physical education. The facility blends athletics, physical education and academic spaces.”

“It’s the type of rec center that you might find on a bigger four-year campus,” Izadi says. “But it also has that support for kinesiology and physical education to elevate those programs.”

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Community colleges are exploring options to efficiently provide more housing for students.


As California community colleges continue to evolve, student housing will be a key priority, particularly in areas where housing prices are soaring.

The California Legislature has labeled affordable student housing a crisis and allocated more than $2 billion for projects, including $1 billion for community colleges. Although housing was traditionally not part of the community college role, 20% of community college students experienced housing insecurity, including homelessness, at some point during the recent academic year, according to a report by the California Assembly. Only 12 of 116 California community campuses now offer housing programs.

LPA Design Studios and Mithun were recently hired to design a new net zero energy, $80-million student housing project for San Mateo County Community College District, one of the first opportunities to explore the next generation of affordable student housing facilities. The new project will provide 500 beds for future students.

“It really should be more than just providing a place to lay your head,” says LPA Director of Higher Education Steve Flanagan. “Any housing should support the health and wellness of the students and provide a model to teach students how to be responsible, independent and sustainable citizens.”

The Legislature’s commitment of funds is an acknowledgment that times have changed, says LPA Design Director Matthew Porreca.

“The state realizes that the housing crisis has extended to the community colleges in an indirect way,” Porreca says. “Traditionally, you don't expect community college students to live on campus, but you expect them to be close enough to have access to programs.”

Colleges will need to ask tough questions: How do you serve underprivileged students closer to campus, when housing prices are skyrocketing and inventory is low? How can campuses provide amenities to the students living on campus to promote social connections? How can housing aid academic success and cultural goals within a district?

Student housing offers community colleges an opportunity to enhance the sense of community on campus, Porreca says.

“It's not just about the functional and affordable housing,” he says. “Our opportunity is to discover what we can do with this building type to bring students together to give them a sense of community, even within their own building.”

Student housing for community colleges will require specific design strategies, considering the community context, larger campus goals and budget. In recent years, LPA has been working on several different types of housing projects, exploring different construction systems such as prefabricated modular, mass timber and recycled shipping containers to accelerate construction schedules, mitigate against inflation and reduce operating costs.

“Community college housing is a chance to innovate,” Porreca says. “We will need to look at every option and be creative and innovative.”