[caption id="attachment_67520" align="alignright" width="362"] The 130,000-square-foot student center at Sonoma State will accommodate needs such as dining, retail and meeting space. (image credit: Sonoma State University)[/caption]

ROHNERT PARK -- Nearly eight years in the making, Sonoma State University plans to open the doors of a three-story, 130,000-square-foot student center this August, creating a central hub for student activity and providing the largest conference and event space in Sonoma County.

The project, estimated to cost $62 million, will bring seven of the campus's eight restaurants under one roof and aggregate a currently disparate peppering of meeting spaces for student government, campus organizations and one-time events. The center will also host the school's bookstore and pub, and sit adjacent to the campus recreation center.

"It makes it hard to share ideas when you're all the way across campus," said Ryan Ernst, who helps direct the school's revenue-generating functions as its director of sales and marketing for entrepreneurial activities. "It's not the building, but it's what it allows to happen here."

[caption id="attachment_67521" align="alignleft" width="350"] The student center includes a number of common areas for student and visitors. (image credit: Sonoma State University)[/caption]

Above those meeting spaces, common areas and restaurants is a modular third-floor space that, at its largest configuration, opens to a 12,000-square-foot "grand ballroom." Mr. Ernst said having so much of that kind of space will fill a long-desired function for students and will help support the campus's busy conference season in conjunction with the recently opened Green Music Center.

"At the end of the day, Weill Hall is a concert hall," said Mr. Ernst, who also helps direct activities there. "Weill Hall, in a conference setting, might be where you have your grand opening or finale. The workhorse will be the student center. It has the breakout spaces and the dining."

It is the most recent project in a long-term transformation for Sonoma State, ranked as one of the most beautiful campuses in the country by TheBestColleges.org in 2012.

Under construction since fall 2011, the building is the latest student center--type project for San Francisco--based architecture firm Hornberger + Worstell. Planned to qualify for a LEED Silver designation, the Sonoma State University Student Center will utilize natural and energy-efficient lighting, recycled materials and other measures, said John Davis, principal in charge at the firm.

[caption id="attachment_67522" align="alignright" width="385"] The "grand ballroom" will have 12,000 square feet in its largest configuration. (image credit: Sonoma State University)[/caption]

The building also employs other efficiencies, like a central kitchen that serves the multiple surrounding restaurants and helps boost the campus's dining capacity from 900 to 1,400 people. Yet despite that centralized approach, Mr. Davis said that the design seeks to create numerous distinct areas and evoke a desire to explore.

"The building is organized in such a way that the open, welcoming nature is evident from the outside of the building," he said. "It looks like a string of spaces. It makes you want to explore more of it."

In embarking on the student center project, Sonoma State is joining a wave of change for campuses and student culture in the California State University system and beyond, Mr. Davis said. Many of those campuses were originally designed to serve students that would spend minimal leisure time on site. Changed student habits have inspired many schools to construct ambitious centers that accommodate those populations.

The new student center will replace a current 17,600-square-foot facility on the edge of campus, numerous restaurant spaces and a residential dining hall that currently accommodates 275. The campus is considering future uses for those sites.

"A lot of older student unions are very institutional," Mr. Davis said. "They're classroom buildings -- not very inviting for people who are 18, 19, 20 years old."

In addressing the evolving needs of students, leaders of the project said that the conference capacity of the new student center also responds to the increasingly connected role that Sonoma State has with the broader North Bay economy.

The conference space will join other large venues in Sonoma County. The largest is a 6,100-square-foot space at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts north of Santa Rosa. That center has about 30,000 square feet of meeting space. Other meeting places include the region's hotels and community centers, said Mark Crabb, who heads conference center marketing as director of sales for the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

A typical conference in Sonoma County will range from 25 to 250 people, frequently as a retreat for a board of directors or a meeting for a regional chapter of a larger organization, Mr. Crabb said. The student center, with meeting space to accommodate more than 1,000 people, could provide an opportunity for larger meetings, particularly during the summer.

"People visit and say, "This would be a great place to have a meeting,'" Mr. Crabb said."Then they start to think, 'Maybe this would be a good place to have a business.'"

Construction of the student center is funded by a partner group that includes University Housing, Sonoma State Enterprises, Associated Students, Student Union Corporation and a $150-per-semester student fee passed in 2011. The general contractor for the project is Sundt Construction, Inc.