Traci Ferdolage – San José State University
Seems too many folks have found their way to San José. The Silicon Valley city no longer matches the carefree, anti-Los Angeles that Dionne Warwick so wistfully sang about over a half-century ago.
So went some of the lyrics of that iconic song: “They’ve got a lot of space, there’ll be a place where I can stay.”
Now, buildable real estate is at a premium, and if there’s a place to stay, it’ll likely go to somebody who can afford the average monthly rent of $2,790.
That might rule out much of the faculty, students and staffers at San José State University, which, like so many California institutions—not to mention private businesses—must contend with an affordable housing shortage that can threaten its most basic functions.
“Like other organizations in Silicon Valley, we face challenges in recruiting and retaining not just students but faculty and staff,” says Traci Ferdolage, who this past May accepted the post of senior associate vice president of facilities development and operations. “If a pipe bursts and all my plumbers live an hour away, then I’ve got a problem.”
But in any crisis, she reminds that there’s opportunity for innovation. Thus, her creative juices should flow; this urban public university vexed by the double whammy of the housing shortage and COVID-19’s uncertain effects on how campus activities will transpire come the next academic year.
“When I arrived at SJSU, the pandemic was well underway and I hit the ground running,” the intense and good-natured Ferdolage tells Blueprint in late July. “Total immersion isn’t a bad thing. It is what it is, and I enjoy a good challenge.”
It also helps to have a partner in these situations. She says the university has one in the state of California, which is allowing SJSU to redevelop a state-owned building near the campus in downtown San José for faculty, staff and some graduate student housing. The university is currently evaluating the property with the goal of building 800 to 1,200 residential units in addition to office space for state agencies and some mixed-use commercial space.
The university can also offer future partners on the project—something most valuable—in what Ferdolage describes as the ultimate boom-or-bust state.
“Guaranteed occupancy for the long term should be very attractive to any partner,” she says. “We can bring to the table the audience that fills out the units or leases for the long term. We remove the lease-up risk. For all involved, it’s a win-win.”
As for on-campus housing during the fall semester, the university plans a hybrid model conducting most classes online with a few in-person that will adhere to physical distancing and health guidelines. That means fewer students on campus in the fall. Still, when the pandemic ends and students, faculty and staff return, Ferdolage says it will take a creative approach, along with government and community partners, to deliver affordable housing for the campus.
“It’s crucial to keep pushing in that direction now as, COVID-19 pandemic or not, the pressure for affordable housing for our students, faculty and staff remains,” she says.
Meanwhile, other projects that predate Ferdolage’s arrival continue, including the construction of an interdisciplinary science building on the main campus that she expects will open in early 2022.
Then there are the athletic and recreational facilities getting an upgrade on the South Campus, though when competition will resume is anybody’s guess. With Ferdolage’s responsibilities including environmental health and safety, it’s up to her and her team to lead efforts ensuring protocols and operational plans are in place for face coverings, hygiene and sanitation, even if the football players aren’t allowed to make contact.
“It’s changed the entire landscape with respect to higher education,” says Ferdolage. “During this unprecedented time when there is less campus activity, our team is very busy ensuring facilities are cleaned for COVID-19, and we are working to address deferred maintenance and work order backlog. Yes, the budget is a challenge and will be for the next several years. But creativity, a great team, and hard work always gets the job done.”
A progressive mindset shared
Changes were well underway at San José State University before COVID-19, with campus administrators identifying Ferdolage to lead on the facilities front.
A Humboldt State University graduate with a physical education degree and MBA, she held a series of facilities positions at her alma mater for a dozen years before becoming associate vice chancellor of physical planning, development and operations at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from 2017 to 2020.
While it wasn’t easy to leave UC Santa Cruz, Ferdolage says she couldn’t say no to Charlie Faas, SJSU’s vice president of administration and finance.
“Charlie and I met several times before my arrival on campus. He sold me on the vision for the campus—where SJSU was going, the challenges that lie ahead, and his need for a partner to help make it happen,” Ferdolage says. “Charlie works very hard and is incredibly resourceful and creative. From day one, he and others in campus leadership have pulled me in to help drive that vision forward. It’s been a great start and I look forward to our future.”
Nowadays, Ferdolage oversees several teams that include around 300 people in facilities development and operations, including planning, design, construction, maintenance and operations, utilities, environmental health and safety, and associated administrative and business support services. While automation and high-tech continue to streamline functions, she’s quick to say, “My guiding principle in how I work and how I lead my team is to be people driven with a focus on developing trust, accountability and transparency.”
Finding her way into facilities
Her route to facilities management was somewhat circuitous. The first member of her family to attend college, she initially leaned toward teaching and coaching, but that morphed into municipal recreation and parks planning. Enjoying the community aspect of developing recreational facilities, Ferdolage returned to Humboldt for her MBA and began work as an intern in its construction management arena.
She had a small role in the school’s first LEED Gold building and saw her internship turn into an actual job as a project manager in 2005. She earned three promotions over the next 12 years, culminating in her leading the facilities management organization before taking her skills to UC Santa Cruz.
While there, she played a pivotal role in the development of a 3,000-plus bed student housing project using the public-private partnership delivery model. The project was approved by the UC Board of Regents before becoming embroiled in litigation but has recently made progress toward moving forward. “This is a major accomplishment for UC Santa Cruz,” Ferdolage says. “It’s one of the hardest projects I have ever worked on. but one very worthy of its eventual construction, as providing affordable housing for students should always be a priority.”
Despite full immersion at SJSU, there are times when Ferdolage can’t help but pay heed to what’s going on at the Santa Cruz campus.
Her wife is none other than Kara Newman-Ferdolage, a former Northern Arizona University basketball star who became an assistant coach of the UC Santa Cruz women’s team last year. In the interest of household harmony, it might be fortunate that while Santa Cruz and San José are separated by just 30 miles, the Banana Slugs are Division III while the Spartans are Division I. No chance of a tip-off even if basketball resumes.
“I always support her as she supports me, but to keep things playful around our house I’ll definitely root for the Spartans first,” Ferdolage says.
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