University to spend record $220 million on construction
Does a rise in building and renovation projects negatively impact student life?
Students may have noticed the University looks a bit different this year. Trips to Observatory Hill Dining Hall have grown longer, thanks to rolling hills of dirt overtaking the usual path. Beeping and squealing tractors interrupt quiet strolls to the libraries along McCormick Road. Engineering students may attend classes in glass-wrapped Rice Hall, and some first-year students live in residence halls erected this past summer. These finished or continuing projects have cost the University more money on construction and renovation than ever before.
Record-breaking construction spending\nThere has been more construction this calendar year than ever before - at least in terms of spending. Construction projects for this calendar year will cost about $220 million, according to Chief Facilities Officer Donald Sundgren.
"It is clearly going to be the ... most amount of money spent on construction ever this year," said Colette Sheehy, vice president for management and budget.. "It just seems like everything kind of culminated this year."
Sundgren, however, expects the activity to dwindle in coming years.
"A number of [projects] were completed this summer, so going forward there will be a smaller number of projects," Sundgren said.
Construction is more visible this year: Of the more than 15 ongoing projects, 13 will have a visual impact on students, according to the facilities management website. Necessity and a desire to modernize the University account for many of these projects, said Sheehy.
Projects in the Alderman Road residence area include two new residence halls to replace Webb and Maupin, a new gateway to Kellogg House from the other dorms, completed courtyards, and a new building where Lile and Tuttle once stood. These projects will cost around $82.5 million and should be complete to accommodate residents in fall 2013.
These construction projects are funded in a variety of ways. The money comes from the state, the University and donors. The ratio is difficult to pinpoint, as it varies from year to year and from project to project; for example, the state provided all the funding for Cabell Hall. But a high level of state funding is the exception, not the rule, Sundgren said.
"I would say the majority of the funding is a mix of University funds and donor funds," Sundgren said.
The $220 million budgeted for construction may seem like a great deal of money at a time when budget cuts are slashing their way through the University. For example, the University has not increased faculty salaries since December 2007 because of the economic downturn.
"I think ... budget cuts have impacted the state funding of projects, so more funding has to come from other sources," Sundgren said.
Construction is a "one-time cost," Sheehy said, adding that such spending may be easier to justify than something more enduring.
"A salary increase that applies to all employees ... that's a substantial, ongoing cost for the institution," she said.
Sundgren said the poor state of the national economy makes the present time "a perfect time to do construction."
"The buildings themselves have very reasonable costs, because ... the economy in the drags affects the construction prices as well, so it has been very beneficial for the University," he said. "What we're building right now is a lower cost than what we were building five or six years ago."
Spending will be directed more toward the academics of the University once these projects are completed, Sundgren said.
"I think we just happen to be in a period where there is need, and the need is being filled, and that's going to taper off," he said. "We are going to see more spending on faculty ... as opposed to construction, because we will have the new facilities we need for a period of time."
An architectural identity\nWith these new buildings and renovations on Grounds, another important aspect is the overall design and look of these projects.
"The University has an identity, so the new buildings have to reflect that identity," Sundgren said. "They need to reflect that this is the University of Virginia."
Architectural History Prof. Richard Wilson explained that a building's location can affect its design.
"The closer you get to the Central Grounds, the more you need to bow, to some degree, to previous traditions, but the farther away you go, the more you can deviate in certain ways," Wilson said.\nThe University has had to diverge from Thomas Jefferson's original design thanks to dependence on cars and new technology leading to the formation of parking garages and science labs, Wilson said.
"The automobile becomes very dominant, and disperses things," Wilson said, citing Observatory Hill, which can only be accessed by car. He said he believes cars are the reason why the University has spread out the locations of its buildings since the 1950s.
Lately, the University has shifted its efforts toward keeping new construction more centralized on Grounds.
"The intent in recent years has been to try to refocus on Central Grounds and keep buildings not to continue to spread out so much, to try to keep more things focused on Central Grounds," Wilson said.
The new dorms on Alderman Road will be modeled after traditional hall-style residence buildings, said Candice Clawson, area coordinator for the Alderman-North residence area.
"We want to go back to the McCormick way, just because we find that it builds community really well," Clawson said. "Old dorms will always be a staple of residence life here. Those structures are iconic to a lot of alums and students."
Wilson said the architects who work at the University include some of the best in the country.
"We are trying to choose the best, who have Jefferson in mind," Wilson said.
Jefferson's architectural vision influences the way University buildings are designed even today.
"There is always the big question of how is it that students learn?" Wilson said. "Is it just in the classroom, or is it in the halls between class? Or is the environment part of the teaching tool? I would say the environment is part of the teaching tool and Jefferson felt that very strongly."
Construct-ive criticism\nSome students, however, are not as receptive to the projects sprouting up around Grounds. Fourth-year College student Alex Worth said she found the construction frustrating and unnecessary.
"They could've done a lot of this construction ... this summer, but they didn't, and now the first years have to flog through everything and find classes in the midst of all this construction," Worth said. "It's just a headache."
She said she thought the projects were wasteful.
"I think it's a misappropriation of funds," Worth said. "They're cutting classes, departments aren't funded well enough; they are sacrificing our education for the sake of getting more money from alumni," referring to the idea that alumni will be more likely to spend money on a growing University.
Second-year College student Jennifer Breeze expressed a frustration with construction projects, but admits the projects are a sign of progress.
"Sometimes [construction] can get in the way of a student's day," Breeze said. "However ... the University needs it to grow."
Both students agreed, however, that the construction made it more difficult to get to class. Worth said construction made classes by or in the South Lawn area particularly difficult to get to.
"I have a class that's in Nau and then a class right behind the African Affairs department; so what would be a two-minute walk is a 10-minute walk," Worth said.
Breeze said she found the construction to be an "eyesore" but looked forward to the completed projects.
"Hopefully, it will look beautiful by the time they're done," Breeze said.
The University is making a concerted effort to make the projects as convenient as possible, Sundgren said. "We've done our best to minimize the disruption," he said. He also understood the students' complaints. "When you're walking around Grounds, you sometimes feel like you're walking through a construction site," Sundgren said.