University: SEC to cost $275 million

GW released the long-awaited cost estimate for the Science and Engineering Complex Monday. At $275 million, the building is the most expensive in University history.

For the complex to become a reality, the Board of Trustees must approve the budget and plans at its meeting in October. This vote will not only decide the future of the building, but will effectively determine if GW goes forward with plans to be a major research university – a long-stated goal of President Steven Knapp.

The Science and Engineering Complex – a project that was in the works before Knapp’s tenure began in 2007 – is expected to improve research by providing a physical space the University hopes will be used for innovative studies. Knapp has said in the past he hopes the building will help foster a culture of research at GW.

Improving the University’s research status has been one of Knapp’s focuses since he came to GW from Johns Hopkins University, one of the country’s premier research institutions. Knapp appointed Dr. Leo Chalupa to the then-newly created position of vice president for research in 2009 in order to push the University president’s goal forward.

The preliminary cost estimate was based on information provided from Ballinger Company, Hickok Cole, Clark Construction and Boston Properties – the four companies involved with managing, contracting and designing different phases of the project – a news release said.

This estimate is on par with the first cost estimate presented by the Faculty Senate in 2008. That report said the center could cost between $180 million and $270 million without equipment. University spokeswoman Candace Smith said the new $275 million estimate includes equipment and furniture.

“In order to provide our students with the most state-of-the-art yet flexible learning and research space, the university will be making its largest investment for a new building,” Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz said Wednesday. “It is a necessary and integral step in achieving our goals for the future.”

Katz added, “In fact, it would be unfair to compare the cost of the proposed Science & Engineering Complex with other academic or residential buildings considering its size and the complexity of the laboratory and other research-focused space.”

As for the hospital and Square 54, neither of those were financed by GW. Universal Health Services, Inc. paid for the hospital and Boston Properties paid for construction of Square 54.

The University’s estimate is far below the estimate economics professor Anthony Yezer gave The Hatchet in March. Yezer – who specializes in real estate economics and has testified in front of Congress on mortgages during the financial crisis – conducted two different cost estimations and said a “conservative” cost estimate for the SEC is about $400 million.

After the cost estimate was released this week, Yezer said he believes the University’s estimate is far too low.

“I gather that [the cost estimate] omits at least $70 million in site preparation costs,” Yezer said, including $60 million to replace the spaces in the current Colonial Parking structure, where the SEC is slated to be built, with underground parking.

“With other major projects, like dormitories, the funding stream to pay for them is clearly related to charges for room and board. In the case of instructional facilities, expanding enrollment can be a justification. [but] we cannot expand enrollment in Foggy Bottom,” Yezer said, referring to GW’s enrollment caps on the Foggy Bottom Campus.

The University is limited by D.C. zoning laws on how many students can live and study on both the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses. The University was 60 students away from exceeding the city-imposed enrollment cap for the Foggy Bottom Campus last fall, likely reflecting increased interest in the University, but posing a problem for GW’s future growth. Because GW relies on tuition to fund many of its operating costs, the enrollment cap will potentially leave GW with stagnant income.

Yezer added that a “much more modest building effort” could be used for science and engineering in Foggy Bottom, and that there is more space for major research initiatives at GW’s Virginia Campus.

The complex is set to include about 400,000 square feet of above-grade space to “house teaching and research laboratories for faculty and students in GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science,” the news release said. To be located on the site of the current University Parking Garage – at the corner of 22nd and H streets – the complex will greatly increase both classroom space but will spring science and engineering departments under a central roof.

“The University plans to pay for the construction through fundraising, internal and/or external loans (debt service to be funded by payout associated with the Square 54 ground lease), and reimbursement for indirect costs provided under federal research grants,” Katz said in an e-mail. “The parking garage will have a separate capital budget and will be paid for, over time, by users.”

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