A Pipeline Full of Mega-Projects
CUNY Construction at All-Time High

By Gary Schmidgall

Emma Macari can laugh now--and she often does, infectiously and with down-to-earth humor. But her life 30 years ago gave her little to smile about.

Her hope of competing in the backstroke at the 1960 Rome Olympiad for the Cuban swim team had been dashed by Fidel Castro's ascent to power. Macari had begun architectural studies at Catholic-run Villanova University, soon closed by Castro, and continued them at the University of Havana amid post-revolutionary chaos. When her family emigrated to Miami, she was desperately poor but struggled to complete her studies. She is amused now by memories of the tortuous, many-legged bus commute to her University of Miami classes... and of her days as the empress of popcorn. Like many CUNY students today, new to the United States, she held a full-time job while pursuing her degree: Seven days a week, with double shifts on the weekend, Macari sold popcorn in a movie theater.

Today Macari deals with decisions considerably more momentous than buttered or plain. Since the fall of 1993, the architect--she eventually earned her degree from the University of FloridaQhas been City University'Us Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction and Management (FPCM) and thoroughly immersed in enormous responsibility. The inch-thick Capital Outlay Program for 1996-97 that Macari's office recently produced, for example, lays out spending targets for several dozen projects, including every CUNY campus and totaling more than $570 million.

The FPCM docket is full now and will be for the next several years. "We are moving into very exciting times, with legislators and government leaders recognizing that huge increases in student populations and deteriorating old buildings cannot be ignored," explains Lia Gartner, Director of FPCMUs Department of Design, Construction and Management. The figures certainly bear out her optimism. In the five years between 1991 and 1996, the capital budget never broke through the $200 million level; in the first two of those years it sank to astonishing lows of less than $15 million. But in each of the next five years capital funds available to CUNY should range from $300 to more than $600 million annually.

Those enormous figures represent a breathtaking number and variety of projects. Gartner's department is currently supervising 65 projects valued at $77 million in the pre-design phase, 73 projects with a value of $510 million in design, and 55 projects worth $164 million under constructionQin all, nearly 200 projects worth three- quarters of a billion dollars.

For a better grasp of the scope of these activities, consider just one year of the planning process represented by the 1996-97 Capital Budget Request. The document describes 62 construction projects: the new Baruch Academic Complex at a new site on East 24th Street; an elaborate rehabilitation of City CollegeUs landmark Shepard Hall; and more pedestrian but vital CUNY-wide asbestos removal and upgrading of bathroom facilities. Twenty- five projects, in fact, are University-wide and mainly address infrastructure, health and safety improvements, energy conservation, feasibility studies, and equipment modernization.

These projects fall into several categories: senior or community college, bonded or tax-levy funded, CUNY-wide or single-campus, and "major" or "moderate rehabilitative." The lion's share of the $570 million in capital funds requested represents major bonded projects to be funded and administered by the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY). In this category are mega- undertakings like the Graduate Center's reincarnation in the former B. Altman building (budgeted at more than $150 million), Academic Buildings I and II at Medgar Evers College ($140 million), and the Baruch Complex ($250 million). Less imposing projects can still be quite costly: $62 million to rehabilitate and enlarge the Brooklyn College Library and $56 million to renovate and add two floors to Hostos' Grand Concourse building. The Board of Trustees has assigned priority to 22 major bonded projects at the senior colleges and 12 at the community colleges. The 28 remaining projects in this year's budget, requiring the expenditure of just $22 million, are classed as "moderate rehabilitation." It's expected that these projects (12 senior-, 16 community-college) will be paid for through tax-levy monies, with the community college projects funded 50% from the state, 50% from the city. Ranging from $130,000 to $5 million, they include security enhancements at Bronx Community College, a new chemical storage facility at New York City Technical College, and upgrading of CUNY's mainframe computer. These smaller projects, too, have been given a priority ranking by the Trustees.

Clearly, the preparation of priority lists is fraught with intense political maneuvering and vigorous lobbying efforts on behalf of particular projects. Macari has sought to make the difficult process as open, fair, efficient, and cost-effective as possible by publishing a six-point Roverall rationaleS for awarding any project a higher priority:

  • Is construction necessary to correct life-safety, security, and code violations? Within this category, projects serving the greatest nuber of occupants will be favored.

  • Will construction preserve existing physical assets and minimize legal risks? Projects with the greatest cost benefit for the long term will get top billing.

  • Among individual campus projects already within the design or site-acquisition "pipeline," which ones are most mature and ready for further funding to bring them to occupancy? Again, those with the highest number of occupants and/or best cost-benefit numbers will be favored. Projects with some charitable funding, like the Newman Library at Baruch, are also advantaged.

  • Will a project result in greater efficiencies of campus space use, avoid costly off-campus leases, and/or reduce future operational expenditures?

  • For any project intended to increase teaching space, how does a specific campus rank in overall space deficiency or deficiency in selected disciplines, according to CUNY space standards?

  • For projects intended to create non-teaching space, how do a campus' deficiencies in any given category of academic mission- supporting space rank with other campuses? Highest priority here is given to projects previously funded and nearest to occupancy; then, in descending order, to faculty/student service, faculty office, administration, and, finally, assembly-space projects.

    Another challenge for Macari was "to make this a more workable office--to reorganize, rationalize, and sophisticate CUNY's planning and construction processes." With her new senior staff (see the article CUNY's CADRE OF ARCHITECTS), she has spent the last two and a half years putting in place new procedures and standards for the Office of Facilities.

    Though as a backstroker Macari was used to being unable to see where she was going, several of her major initiatives emphasize foresight. One is to insure that Physical Master Plans at all campuses are reevaluated and updated. Some of these Plans, she found, were ancient. City College's Plan dated to 1970 and was last amended in 1973, while Brooklyn College's, originally prepared in 1971, was just amended last year. Macari is confident that every campus will have an up-to-date, Board-approved Plan by the end of 1997.

    FPCM has also instituted a rigorous and detailed five-year planning procedure. As a result, the 1996-97 Capital Outlay budget document includes a detailed five-year forecast of the acquisition, design, construction, and equipment-purchasing phases of every new or renovated CUNY facility.

    Charged with coaxing funds into the CUNY pipeline is Sheila Chaffin, Director of the Department of Space Planning and Capital Budget. Working closely with Chief of Planning Krista Cook, Chaffin spends most of her time "scoping" all the preliminary assessments and decisions necessary to justify and site a new building--or the cost-effectiveness and aesthetic ramifications of rehabilitating an existing one. Answering numerous questions--What disciplines will be occupants? How many students will be served? What are the cost parameters? How will it relate to adjacent buildings? What is the environmental impact?--produces the scope on which a request for funding can be based. Particularly important in scoping is the application of carefully calculated space standards (see NEWMAN'S LATEST AWARD below).

    Chaffin then draws up her annual capital budget requests. "It's ecstasy when a project we have worked so hard to justify is approved in Albany, and agony when something doesn't come through and we realize we have a lot more 'educating' to do to make our case," she says.

    Once funding is in place or in good prospect, the fun of design begins. Macari and Gartner start selecting design teams, preparing architectural and engineering plans and monitoring actual construction. Macari is proud of another crucial initiative, which she has aggressively pursued since her arrival: bringing all planners, coordinators, consultants, and designers online.

    The entire CUNY physical plant has recently been entered into a Computer Aided Design (CAD) database. Every nook and cranny of every University building can now be digitally summoned, and Macari is pleased at how this was done. Interest earned on construction bond funds in CUNY custody was used to hire more than two dozen CCNY design students who, guided by mentors from the School of Architecture, mastered the CAD program and fanned out to every campus to make formal surveys. "We got an absolutely necessary database," says Macari, "and the students emerged with greatly enhanced professional skills."

    In addition, Macari explains that FPCM has established "a much more democratic and exhaustive" process of getting to know its architectural suitors. Projects are better advertised now, and more research is done on the qualifications of firms bidding on CUNY projects. The prestige and visibility of the University's plum projects can attract as many as 60 to 100 expressions of interest. Typically, Macari says, "our office will require more elaborate proposals from 10 or 12 serious candidates. The ultimate selection is usually made after interviewing four or five finalists."

    The ideal is to avoid awarding projects solely on the basis of a low bid. "Our aim is to achieve what we call QBS, or qualification-based selection," notes Macari.

    The mandate for change has extended to the Department of Design and Construction as well. FPCM has just moved into a new suite of offices at 555 W. 57th St., but Gartner's fine view of the Hudson is marred by a pile of some 300 resumes she is reviewing. "We want to treat every Campus Facilities office like a client, and we are hoping to have in place several skilled managers at FPCM intimately familiar with each campus and responsible for a 'portfolio' of projects," she explains. "We are trying to get away from the old 'discipline-based' management, in which preliminary data would drift upward separately to a head architect and a head engineer, who would then parley at the top. Instead, weUre trying to establish a more collaborative, 'client-based' attitude toward project management."

    A brief overview of some of the most important construction projects in the CUNY portfolio reveals an enormous variety of design challenges and opportunities.

    A high priority is planning a new academic complex across Crown Street from the main campus of Medgar Evers College, which is currently struggling with only a third of the space appropriate to its burgeoning student body. CUNY has funds to acquire the site, but the project is stymied by its present lessee, the Sanitation Department, which is slow in moving its collection facility.

    Macari explains that once the site is acquired (its owner is very eager for this to happen), a very desirable domino effect will occur. The permanent closing of a block of Crown Street, which Macari is confident will be permitted, will effect a stunning transformation from rat-infested, malodorous eye-sore to an academic mall with lawns, a central public space, and groves with seating.

    Replacing the refuse haulers with students will free the College's deteriorated Carroll Street Building, formerly a public high school, for renovation and allow the retirement of temporary trailers now used for classrooms and offices. Later phases, according to the 1995 Campus Master Plan, will allow the replacement of Medgar Evers' modest library and the building of a multi-stage theater complex.

    Most major construction projects bring unique design challenges. For several months architect Hugh Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer has been wrestling with the challenge of "how to relate a conventional office-use high-rise to the idea of a campus." He is the architect charged with carving a campus out of the 15-story building at 30 West Broadway donated in 1993 by Miles and Shirley Fiterman to Borough of Manhattan Community College. Complicating Hardy's task are two facts: Fiterman Hall is already in use, and the Research Foundation and one of CUNY's Family College campuses will also be tenants.

    Hardy is particularly eager to create appropriate spaces for students to interact in this building with a relatively small "foot-print" (ground-level floor plan). "If we don't give it to them, they will [use] the corridors like your typical office workers, and we don't want that." He is contemplating expansion of open space in the lobby and a skip-stop elevator format.

    "Vertical circulation has been a very challenging problem," explains Cynthia Rock, FitermanUs project manager. "Add an elevator or a staircase, and you lose a classroom." Assuming these problems are resolved, all Fiterman work should be completed by Fall 1998.

    The approaching millennium is the target date for occupancy of the Baruch Academic Complex ("Site B"), an FPCM mega-project that will give the College well over half the space its 1986 amended Master Plan predicted it would need by the end of the century. This new 16-story building, for which nearly $250 million has been approved or requested, will put down an enormous, 61,000-square-feet footprint on nearly the entire block bounded by 24th and 25th Streets, Lexington and Third Avenues. The Complex will house Baruch's Schools of Business and Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Student Life and Services offices, performing arts and athletics facilities, a bookstore, and a cafeteria. It is being designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox.

    Baruch has acquired eight separate buildings through eminent domain procedures, though not without some controversy. More than 150 occupants of two SRO hotels required relocation, with some delays caused by 18 tenants who have refused various offers for new quarters. An Environmental Impact Statement consumed several months, and questions were also raised about the propriety of demolishing two buildings that were horse stables early in the century. A permanent exhibition about the stables in the new building and decorative use of part of their facades may satisfy the demands of landmark preservation.

    At the old B. Altman building, Robert Siegel of Gwathmey/Siegel Architects has been supervising preparation of GSUCUs new home. He believes the huge footprint of more than 50,000 gross square feet and the 18- to 22-foot high ceilings will be "ideal for promoting interactive patterns and carving out striking public spaces." Siegel says the grandeur of the original lobby and of at least one elaborate staircase, the entrance to the GSUC library, will be on full display. New elevator banks and stairways will be placed at the site's core. And some of the storeUs original interior details have survived: Three of four water fountains will flow again.

    "This is an unusually pure building architecturally, with a very regular series of columns," he observes. "It is both beautiful and exploitable."

    Requiring particular care of late has been the renovation of City College's Gothic Revival-style Shepard Hall, with its gargoyles, flying buttresses and rosette windows. Sited on the most prominent vista of Manhattan island, the 1904 building was the first of 18 to be built on campus, and its Great Hall, now in disuse due to deterioration, is one of four interior spaces in New York City with landmark status. The hall is scheduled for a $3.75 million renovation that will exploit its potential as a symposium/lecture/community space.

    Supervising such a stimulating variety of design work obviously pleases Macari. But, during nearly two decades as a planner on the University of Wisconsin campus, Macari says, "Life was simpler. I dealt largely with old, established construction companies, many of them family-owned for generations. And stable, experienced subcontractors took great pride in their work." Here in New York, she says, "There is much more competitiveness, a real free-for-all." And the Wicks Law mandates that every state project have four separate contractors--electrical, mechanical, plumbing, general--who hire their own subcontractors.

    Add to that DASNY's requirement that CUNY appoint a fifth party, a separate construction manager for each project, and the legal requirements for minority set-asides, and you get what Macari calls "an extremely unwieldy, time-consuming, complicated construction period." For Hostos' East Academic Complex, Macari sighs, "We let over 60 contracts."

    Macari's mettle may be tested again soon by plans for a new community college on an old factory site in East Harlem. Though seen as integral to the new Federal Empowerment Zone, the project has met opposition from forces that prefer private industry. "In our mindUs eye, we would turn the site from a ruin into a place of great activity, with people learning and getting a foot in the door of New York's economy," says Macari.

    Newman's Latest Award

    If the new Baruch College Library and Technology Center were a film star, its mantelpiece would be crammed with Oscars. The American Institute of Architects Honors Award, following five other design awards garnered by the Newman Library (named after principal donor William Newman and his wife Anita), will be conferred on the East 25th Street structure at the AIA meeting in May.

    The achievement of designers Davis, Brody & Associates, which transformed the Metropolitan Street Railway Company's century-old Lexington Building, was summed up in the citation accompanying the Municipal Art Society's Certificate of Merit last year: "In an extraordinarily sensitive transformation of the 1895 Lexington Building...into a house of learning, those responsible have given tangible proof that harmony can exist between old and new."

    Other honors the Library boasts are the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award of the Landmarks Preservation Society, a 1995 Access New York Award, the 17th Library Building Award of the Library Administration and Management Association, the Library Buildings Award of the American Library Association, and a joint ALA-AIA Award of Excellence. Far more to the point is the impressive award that Baruch students have conferred upon Newman: a five-fold increase in Library use since it opened a year and a half ago.