Heritage Commons at Clark Georgia University

With the 2021-2022 school year beginning, not all aspects of the return to in-person instruction have gone smoothly for students of Atlanta, Georgia’s Clark Atlanta University, as many have been heavily affected by slow renovations to the school’s dorms — leaving university members and parents alike appalled by the lack of work done and the unfinished state of student housing.

Renovation of the affected dorms — specifically the CAU Suites and Heritage Commons — was undertaken by Gilbane Building Company

As per real estate filings, Gilbane’s renovation work was registered as commencing on July 9, 2021 — only a short period prior to Clark Atlanta’s August 19, 2021 first-year student move-in day. Parents of residents are saying that, perhaps due to this, renovations of Heritage Commons are clearly running well behind schedule.

“I don’t know if it’s a hotel or apartment complex…whatever it is, it looks like it’s been abandoned,” said Tewana Nelson — parent of planned Clark Atlanta dorm resident — regarding the current state of the building.

According to Clark Atlanta, 80% of student dorms intended for freshmen and upper-class students were ready on move-in day. However, this left 20% of students assigned to dorms unable to move in due to the lagging renovations. 

University President George French Jr. noted that the problems impacted approximately 464 of 2,150 student residents.

To make matters worse, the students had already paid for the dorms prior to moving in, leaving many questioning why the school year arrived with the dorms in such a state.

Lack of communication appears to have been a major issue in the process, affecting all sides, as Gilbane and the university failed to adequately inform any residents of the unfinished renovations or even normal aspects of the residence hall. One parent said of the situation that “I thought it was around the corner or something, they said off-campus but…damn…this is damn near out the state.”

“They never contacted us prior to us leaving [our] home and bringing our children here with no place to stay,” Nelson added.

Parents claimed that Gilbane’s work failed to address aspects that would maintain even normal safe living conditions. “There’s bugs all in the refrigerator…there’s bugs all in the window seal…and [I’ve got to] travel nine hours back to Ohio, but you want me to leave my child here? I don’t feel safe,” said parent Rosland Hawkins of the situation.

Issues with temporary housing may speed up construction, but could lead to more issues 

Following the issues with Gilbane’s work at the dorms, affected students were moved to an off-campus facility borrowed by Clark Atlanta to serve as temporary housing.

However, while this measure took pressure off of Gilbane’s work, it added more problems to the university’s plate. Parents held similar complaints about the temporary housing as they did of the dorms, noting caved-in ceiling tiles, moldy bathrooms, and dirty appliances all around the new space.

In a statement, Clark Atlanta Housing noted the issues contained in the debacle — declining to note any shortcomings on Gilbane’s part.

“We understand how important it is for families to know their students have what they need for a successful start to the school year. While most of our dorm rooms are ready for freshmen and upper-class students to move-in, we sincerely apologize that renovations to one of our main dorms, Heritage Commons have run behind schedule,” the statement said.

“We are working diligently to resolve this issue and are offering temporary housing and transportation solutions until the renovations are complete.”

The unsafe nature of the temporary housing selected by the university was tragically reinforced on September 1, 2021, after a resident of the building passed away following an accident caused by an elevator whose operating permit had expired in August 2020.

University response gives Gilbane more time, but puts it in a difficult position to complete work quickly

University officials acknowledged the unsafe nature of the dorm situation, and in doing so may have added new construction and renovation priorities to the university’s plate.

“My team recently failed to make the parent and student experience enjoyable. It is indefensible,” French Jr. said of the situation. “As the ‘Buck stops’ with me, I prefer to acknowledge this dereliction and ask your forgiveness rather than making excuses.”

Reportedly, Clark Atlanta will keep construction going “around the clock” to finish the necessary renovations as soon as possible — a notable goal with university classes having already begun for the semester on August 23, 2021

“Please know that we remain diligent in addressing the issues that caused this challenge,” French Jr. continued. “Given my understanding that the university experienced a similar housing incident some years ago, my team is engaging both formative and summative assessment approaches and revamping key processes to ensure this type of issue will not occur again.”