Story by Gretchen Gatzke and Alex Brandt
VIENNA — A campus change is in the works for Webster University Vienna, but when exactly that move will happen remains unknown.
The fall 2010 semester brought with it rumors of the relocation, and some even expected to be out of the current Vienna building by fall of this year.
“There was no ‘original’ date for the move,” Arthur Hirsh, director of Webster University Vienna, said.
The plan for a campus change came in response to increased enrollment and, as a result, a decrease in classroom space. Webster is also no longer the only Austrian-accredited private university. In order to compete, the institution must up its standards, both in terms of location and facilities.
Greg Gunderson, vice president and chief financial officer in St. Louis, said the institution considered five locations to renovate and move to. Webster Vienna has not yet chosen a final location but has its sights set on one of the five locations.
“What we’re left with is the primary focus, the Palais Wenkheim, which is a palace built by a prince at some point,” Gunderson said. “It’s a beautiful facility. It’s a historic landmark. It (the neighborhood) is the equivalent of the Soho district; it’s very much (full of) young, urban professionals, which we think will assist in recruiting students. This facility will be about twice as large as the space we’re renting now.”
Along with the new building, the university will purchase two nearby hotels to house undergraduate students. The hotels are about 10 minutes away from the Palais Wenkhiem.
“It will feel an awful lot like our dorms here (in the U.S.), except, in all likelihood, the rooms will be smaller than what you see in the U.S. environment, but they’ll have a large commons area,” Gunderson said. “The single units are going to fit more to European standards.”
In a recent survey conducted by the Student Council in Vienna, more than half of the current students were dissatisfied with Webster’s present location on Berchtoldgasse in Vienna’s 22nd district. Sixty-eight percent of surveyed students said they would prefer an American-style campus, complete with dorm rooms, increased study areas and social facilities, as well as a more central location.
“An American-style campus is the main dream of a student when they come to Webster Vienna,” Alan Castillo, treasurer of the Webster Student Council, said. “They think they will benefit from a campus similar to that of St. Louis.”
Gunderson said the new campus will have Western amenities, but will have the outward feel of a European campus. So far though, Webster has not given up the lease on the current building. Several different facilities have been considered and preliminary architectural plans were drawn up for each, Hirsh said. Those plans will not be finalized until a rental or purchase agreement is signed.
For the Palais Wenkhiem, Gunderson said the institution does not yet know if it will purchase the building or lease it.
“The price will be different based on a lease or a purchase,” Gunderson said. “So a lease is less expensive, a purchase is more. This property was worth over $40 million U.S. dollars when the market was high about three years ago. The property value is probably closer to the $20 million range right now, excluding renovations.”
Even if an agreement was signed today, preparations for the facility would take between 12 and 18 months, making the move date fall 2013 at the earliest. According to Hirsh, fall 2014 is a “more likely” scenario.
Gunderson said he believes a contract to either buy or lease the Palais Wenkhiem could happen in as soon as six months.
“I think in six months we will know if we have a contract signed for this property,” Gunderson said. “And if we aren’t able to reach terms we find accommodating, then we will look at the other alternatives. But I would think by six months we’d have a definitive decision. I’m hoping sooner than that.”
He said it is the institution’s hope that by 2014, the Vienna campus will have the new building ready to move into.
In a January convocation speech in St. Louis, President Elizabeth Stroble discussed the institution’s upcoming centennial anniversary in 2015 and referred to the Vienna campus location as something that will, by then, be something different about Webster’s international campuses. For now, Hirsh urges students and faculty to be patient.
“We’ve been through various other situations where people heard what we were bidding on and then it got out, and people got excited,” Hirsh said. “And if you don’t (win the bid) they get disappointed, so we want to try to avoid that.”