Bad economy will delay many new buildings

By
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Clarification appended.

The University will wait until donors fulfill pledges for buildings before beginning construction, potentially delaying several capital projects around campus.

Administrators “expect lower revenues” in the short-term and are therefore more cautious about beginning capital projects, said Beppie Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration.

“The concern is the pace at which some projects will go forward,” she said, adding that uncertainty about how much financial aid will cost is a central problem.

Projects including the planned Creative Arts Center, the Mind Brain Behavior building, the Nelson Fitness Center, the new swim center and the Stephen Robert Campus Center at Faunce House will begin when the University receives the donations pledged for each facility, Huidekoper said.

The buildings are a part of the Plan for Academic Enrichment, President Ruth Simmons’ sweeping program of goals and improvements for the University.

Because the full effects of the economic downturn are still unclear, the Corporation has set “the hurdle a little higher” for approving construction projects, she said. It will now require the University to have the cash in hand before breaking ground, rather than just having enough money in pledged donations, she added.

Corporation members want to make sure the University doesn’t become “overextended” and that pledged donors can still meet their commitments “comfortably,” she said.

But Huidekoper emphasized that administrators remain optimistic that all construction will be completed sooner rather than later. The economic problems began so recently that their long-term implications are still unknown, and University administrators are hopeful the economy will “bounce back.”

“We’re optimistic, but we want to be cautious,” she said.

Despite financial uncertainty, no construction plans have been changed or scaled down, Huidekoper said.

“I think it’s more about timing than it is about scope,” she said, adding that it is still possible that some plans could be changed.

Huidekoper declined to provide specific fundraising numbers for individual buildings, adding that the University would probably give a more concrete update on fundraising in the spring.

Pledged donations have been raised to cover the entire $45 million cost of the Creative Arts Center, which is in the final stages of design, she said.

The 35,000-square foot Creative Arts Center will include a 200-seat recital hall, gallery space, multimedia labs and a recording studio, The Herald reported in May.

Huidekoper added that building cost could actually be lower than anticipated because of the economic downturn. Even so, construction will not begin until donors actually give the University the money they have pledged. She declined to speculate as to when that might be.

Once bids are in for the construction, a final proposal for the building will be presented to the Corporation at its spring meeting, she said.

Architecture firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro, which is designing the center, has already placed a sample of the materials to be used in the building along Angell St. at the Walk to demonstrate them to Corporation trustees, she said.

But the Mind Brain Behavior building is a different story. “Very little so far has come in” for the $69 million, 80,000-square foot building, Huidekoper said.

Though the cost of long-term debt has risen over the last three months, the University still plans to finance $34 million of the building’s cost through borrowing, she added.

The University has used debt to finance a number of recent construction projects, such as the renovations to the J. Walter Wilson Building, utilities system upgrades, visiting scholar housing and residence hall improvements, she said.

Administrators are still hoping to find one or more “naming donors” for the Mind Brain Behavior building, who would pay as much as half of the remaining $35 million and give their name to the building.

Huidekoper said the Mind Brain Behavior building has a “different constituency” interested in it than the Creative Arts Center. It has “not as broad a base,” she said, adding that many people are interested in the arts, while cognitive science is a narrower interest.

The University has already received several promising proposals to relocate the houses at 127 and 129 Angell St., which will be displaced by the Mind Brain Behavior building, she said. The University advertised in October to sell each of the houses for just $10, with the condition that the buyer move the house, even offering to defray moving costs by up to $1 million.

But the future of the Urban Environmental Lab is less clear, she said. The converted carriage house was originally slated to move to a lot on Brown St., The Herald reported in August, but “the neighborhood was definitely not supportive” of the location, she said.

A final decision on the UEL has yet to be made, she said.

Construction on other projects is delayed simply by the Corporation’s stipulation that the University have cash in hand before construction.

Administrators have actually increased the budget for the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center at Faunce House from $15 million to $20 million, and fundraising is “about halfway there,” Huidekoper said.

The exact dates for the renovation are still unclear, though the University would like to begin construction as soon as possible, she said.

The construction timeline for the Nelson Fitness Center and the new swim center is similarly unclear and depends simply on how soon donations come in, she said.

Though construction on the Walk and J. Walter Wilson is nearly complete, both are still “naming opportunities,” or possible incentives for large donations, she said.

All pledged donations have come in for Rhode Island Hall.

As for the perennial question of a new residence hall, Huidekoper said one is unlikely to be built any time soon.

“Not in this economy,” she said.

An article in yesterday’s Herald (“Bad economy will delay many new buildings,” Nov. 18) reported the University has decided to delay construction on these buildings because of current economic conditions. The University has decided to move forward with construction on buildings when it receives all the pledged funding for the buildings from donors, which could happen at any time.