Cost of SEC building not yet determined

Members of the Faculty Senate voiced concerns at the body’s November meeting over the lack of a price tag for the proposed Science and Engineering Complex, an expensive project that is expected to radically alter GW’s academic focus.

After an update about the complex by Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz, multiple members of the Faculty Senate asked Katz and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Lehman why a price estimate or space-allocation plan has not been developed and shared with the faculty.

Senior Associate Vice President for Operations Alicia O’Neil repeated the University’s stance in an e-mail this weekend, saying the project is not far enough along in the programming phase to share a price estimate yet. The project is expected to be completed in 2014 at the earliest.

“We are still very early in the programming and benchmarking effort for the complex. Once the project scope is determined, it will be possible to determine cost estimates at different phases of the project’s conception,” O’Neil said.

Former Chair of the Senate Executive Committee Arthur Wilmarth said he was concerned that the faculty would not get “meaningful advance notice” of the project’s price and plan if Katz, Lehman and other University officials working on the project did not intend to present GW’s Board of Trustees with a plan until its meeting in October of 2010.

“It was my understanding that a year ago that they were planning to go to the Board in May,” Wilmarth said in an interview. “They are now saying they are planning to go the board in October so my concern is, when will they share with the us the basic plans.”

He added, “They haven’t even given us what I considered to be a ballpark estimate.”

Wilmarth was also concerned that the building was going to be used to house research and would not provide the academic upgrades he believes the University first promoted.

“When the science center was first proposed, at least as I understood it, a major part of the case or rational for the center was our current laboratory facilities for both undergraduate and graduate are certainty not up to standards for what we would want for a University of our level and prestige,” Wilmarth said. “And this center would provide a way to upgrade those teaching facilities.”

Ballinger Architects began planning the design of the building in October and has been meeting with deans, faculty and administrators to conceptualize what services and programming the building will provide for the University. O’Neil declined to comment on how much Ballinger Architects is receiving from the University to program the building.

The programming phase will be completed in February 2010 and a “cost determination” phase is scheduled from February 2010 to September 2010, according to a document distributed at November’s Faculty Senate meeting.

The last concrete number provided by the University was presented in a November 2008 preliminary report to the Faculty Senate, which stated the science center could cost between $180 million and $270 million without equipment.

Other universities who have built academic buildings with Ballinger have spent similar amounts. Brown University opened the Sidney E. Frank Hall for Life Sciences in October 2006 for $95 million, but at 169,000 square feet, the project is less than half the size the proposed SEC will be.

Chairman of the Board of Trustees W. Russell Ramsey said in an interview that the building will be a balance between research and space for students.

“There has been an exhaustive process with dozens of meetings going through the pre-planning and the pre-pre-planning,” Ramsey said. “This project has been in planning for the better part of two decades, so no, I don’t have any concern.”

Dean David Dolling of the School of Engineering and Applied Science agreed, saying that while the building will be used for research, he wants to see more undergraduates partaking in research. He added the entire school plans on moving its offices into the new complex.

One of the most outspoken critics of the complex, economics professor Donald Parsons, said this project is a realization of the dreams of a few administrators but does not connect with the University at large.

“That group is just convinced that we should be a science and engineering university and that we should put all of our money into this monolithic project,” Parsons said, referring to some members of the administration and Board of Trustees. “This just does not seem like an obvious thing to do at a University led by political science, social sciences and political affairs.”

On the lack of a price tag, Parsons said it was “unbelievable” the University would be this far into the project and not have an estimate. He compared it to buying a house and not knowing the price until you are ready to move in.

Wilmarth said the main concerns he has heard is that the University may be taking on a project it cannot fund.

“I’m not opposed to the SEC, I just want it to be done in a way that is productive and feasible for the University,” he said.

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