Palmer College of Chiropractic unveiled preliminary plans Thursday for more than $50 million in campus improvements, including new student housing, athletic fields, and classroom and building upgrades, which it plans to make over the next 10 years.

The long-term master plan includes a $14 million project already underway that is adding a new athletic facility and will improve the northwest gateway to the campus, said Aaron Christopher, Palmer's vice chancellor.

He said Palmer has been working with city staff since fall to develop a planned institutional district, or PID, to identify the college's long-term vision for its urban campus. "The city wanted to know what our overall plan was ... not just (plans for) one building at a time."

The new vice chancellor of administration detailed Palmer's long-term plans Thursday to members of the Hilltop Campus Village, the Iowa Main Street program that encompasses Palmer and the central city neighborhood. The presentation was part of Hilltop's annual meeting held at the new Rico's Tropical Cantina, 1510 Harrison St.

According to Christopher, improving the physical campus has become a priority for the college's board of directors. "The hope is we can do it faster than 10 years," he said.

Among the major investments in Palmer's Davenport Campus Master Plan Update are:

  • The new R. Richard Bittner Athletic & Recreation Center, now under construction along Brady Street. The nearly $15 million project includes the new facility as well as creating a more formal northwest gateway to the campus at Main Street and Palmer Drive. The project also will renovate the historic clinic garden.
  • Renovations to the Vickie Anne Palmer Hall, Lyceum Auditorium. This project, which will begin in the next year, will include a new roof, restrooms, ADA accessibility features, new lighting and more. It is estimated at between $5 million and $10 million. 
  • Renovations to improve several classrooms and science labs. Christopher said it will be several millions of dollars in investment.
  • New modern student housing with underground parking to replace the former St. Luke's Hospital and several adjacent homes owned by Palmer. The hospital at West 8th and Main streets was St. Luke's second location. It was vacated in 1918 and became a boarding house. Last fall, Palmer acquired the building. But after long sitting vacant, the structure has deteriorated beyond repair and was not economically feasible to rebuild, he said.
  • Creating greenspace and athletic fields in the northeast corner of the campus near 12th Street between Pershing Avenue and Perry Street.  He said the fields would be accessible to the community.
  • Pedestrian improvements including a plan to convert Brady Street from four lanes to three lanes from 6th Street north through the campus and adding landscaping to divide the sidewalk and the busy street.
  • Creating a new athletic field and parking on the southwest corner of the campus between Main and Harrison streets, north of 6th Street.
  • Creating additional parking and greenspace throughout the campus.

The boundary of the PID roughly is 12th Street on the north; Pershing Avenue on the east; Harrison Street on the west; and 6th Street on the south, including the Perry Hill Student Residences, which are not contiguous but now are part of Palmer's campus and its growing student housing. Christopher said the former Perry Hill Apartments were acquired Dec. 31 as part of the campus improvement plan.

Under Palmer's proposal, several city streets would be vacated including: closing the blocks on 7th and 8th streets between Main and Brady streets; closing Palmer Drive between Brady and Perry streets; and closing 10th and 11th streets between Perry Street and Pershing Avenue. 

He pointed out that some of the plans include development on properties, including residential homes and commercial buildings, that Palmer does not yet own. "Some we don't have, some we may never have,'' he told the Hilltop property owners, business owners and board members gathered. 

According to Christopher, much of its planned investments — including the new athletic facility — are about modernizing the campus in order to retain and recruit more students. "We hear from students now that their experience is the most important factor. It's vital we provide that quality campus experience to maintain enrollment."

Some of Palmer's competition is from its own sister campus in Florida as well as other schools. "Twenty years ago, we were 1,500 students," he said, adding that the college did not anticipate one-third of its students would choose Florida over Davenport when the Florida campus opened 15 years ago. "We've been climbing ever since." Current enrollment is 945.

"Unlike St. Ambrose University, we draw the vast amount of our students from outside the area," he said, adding that bringing those students in adds to the college's economic impact.

Palmer estimates its own area spending combined with its students' spending create a $150 million economic impact on the Quad-City economy.

Christopher said Palmer has other master plans before but a new PID creates a more formalized campus master plan "that will become part of the city code." The plan is expected to go to the city council in July for a first reading after a meeting with the Historic Preservation Commission.

Palmer hosted two community meetings last month to discuss plans with the neighbors. 

"The difference about this (master plan) is the collaboration with the city and the neighbors," he said, adding he hopes the plan will be finalized by September and work could begin in the next six months on some of the projects.

The plan received positive response among many of the Hilltop Campus Village members.

"It has been real exciting to see all the changes in Hilltop," Sylvia Runkle, a rental property owner, said, as she looked over a map detailing Palmer's plans. "Five years ago, I was having to paint over gang symbols on my garage. I haven't seen them in five years now. All the changes have been amazing."

Hilltop Chair Robert Lee, who retired after a 40-year career with Palmer, said the proposal will help accelerate the vision for a campus town environment that is shared by Palmer, the nearby St. Ambrose University and the Hilltop. "The healthier Palmer is should be a boon to the whole area."