ONE DAY in 2007, soon after taking responsibility for the facilities on all 23 of CUNY’s campuses, Iris Weinshall was heading to Queens with Allan Dobrin, the University’s executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer. The day’s agenda: Have a look around York College and hear from college officials what shape their campus was in.
For Weinshall, the newly appointed vice chancellor for facilities planning, construction and management, it was just one stop in a months-long, five-borough tour of CUNY’s vast and well-worn infrastructure. But before she and Dobrin reached Queens that day, Weinshall got a frantic phone call from the Bronx. It was Mary Coleman, senior vice president of Bronx Community College.
“You need to get up here right away!” Coleman told Weinshall. “We’ve got a huge sinkhole! Right on the main road! It’s like an earthquake — there’s a geyser coming out of the ground!”
Weinshall and Dobrin made a U-turn for BCC, a campus of aged buildings designed by Stanford White more than a century ago for what was then New York University. When they arrived, they found Coleman and a crowd of people standing around a muddy pit the size of a small car where an underground steam-heat pipe had burst. The earth caved, steam flew into the air and the campus was heated by portable boilers until spring. “The pipes dated to when it was NYU’s campus, before CUNY acquired it in 1973, so they were probably forty or fifty years old,” Weinshall said. “And they just ruptured, taking the earth down with them.”
That sinkhole and its geyser of steam now stand as a kind of Waterloo for the state of repair of CUNY’s 26 million square feet of buildings and infrastructure. The average age of the University’s buildings is about 50 years, Weinshall says, and most have long suffered from neglect of “critical maintenance” — the kind of mundane upkeep that’s vital to a building’s functional life but has a way of getting squeezed out of tight operating budgets. For years, critical maintenance meant deferred and ignored maintenance — a Band-Aid approach that put off virtually all but the most urgent repairs.
But that has been changing fundamentally over the last four years. The sinkhole at BCC was a symbol of everyday neglect that helped pave the way for renewal on a grand scale. It’s a program officially known as the State of Good Repair initiative, or SOGR. But it might be called CUNY’s Big Fix: Nearly $1.5 billion worth of repairs, upgrades, renovation and rehab — projects small, medium and large that began on every CUNY campus three years ago and will likely continue for the better part of a decade. Indeed, one of the biggest, soon to begin, is a planned $120 million replacement of Bronx Community College’s antiquated heating, cooling and electrical systems.
CUNY through the years had periodically evaluated the declining state of its facilities, but there had never been anything like a master plan to address the perpetually growing list of deferred maintenance on each campus — to say nothing of finding a dedicated funding stream to pay for it. “We knew we had roof problems, heating system problems, building facades in bad shape,” Weinshall said. “But it was all anecdotal, individual campuses coming to us and saying ‘We have this boiler breaking down’ or ‘We plugged in one too many computers and the electricity went out.’ ”
Weinshall’s campus visits, meetings with college presidents and a report by her staff made clear that something large-scale had to be done. As it happened, the state university system had just begun a systematic assessment of conditions on its own campuses—all 63 of them—and invited CUNY to join the process. The University used a survey assessment tool developed by SUNY’s construction agency that allowed each college to compile a detailed and up-to-date account of the state of all its facilities.
The result was an exhaustive catalog of disrepair stretching from Hostos Community College to the College of Staten Island. The consequences have been occasionally dramatic. There was the sinkhole at BCC, of course. And last year, a section of badly deteriorated façade fell off a building at Hostos. “We were lucky it was Good Friday and students were off,” Weinshall said.
Queensborough Community College, meanwhile, has had major power outages each of the past two summers because its electrical capacity has never been upgraded through decades of expansion.
But like those buried steam pipes in the Bronx, much of the deterioration is unseen or barely noticed, at least until it becomes an emergency: Water seepage in a basement at the College of Staten Island, an aged roof at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a tired escalator at Baruch College, creaky windows in the building at Hunter College named for its founder.
“These projects are not sexy, but they are essential,” said Robert Lemieux, who oversees all construction at CUNY as executive director of the Department of Design, Construction and Management. “The buildings on our campuses are not disposable objects. They need a conscious effort and regular investment to extend their useful life and make them viable in today’s world. As any homeowner knows, you need to keep up, and you have to periodically replace equipment or upgrade your systems.”
In the fall of 2007, Weinshall’s office hired Pacific Partners Consulting Group, a firm specializing in facilities planning and capital financing, to make a hard assessment of CUNY’s needs — to put a dollar figure on the hundreds of projects and propose a plan for getting them done. The firm used forecasting models of building lifecycles and replacement costs to come up with a strategy for an extraordinarily ambitious objective: Bringing every building on every CUNY campus to a state of good repair. Between the backlogs of neglected maintenance and aging building systems that would soon join the list, CUNY was confronting $1.7 billion worth of repair and rejuvenation.
More than three-quarters of the disrepair was in building systems — nearly half, some $800 million, for heating, ventilating and air conditioning. Another $187 million was needed for electrical work and an equal amount for plumbing, fire systems and elevators. Exterior work — labor-intensive refacings and masonry repair, along with window and roof replacements — amounted to $325 million. Reconstruction of science labs required $120 million.
The great majority of pressing projects was slated for CUNY’s 11 senior colleges, whose capital funding comes from New York State. That fact, and the timing, was fortunate: Two focal points of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s new administration had been improving the state’s public higher education system and developing capital reinvestment strategies. His administration pledged to budget $284 million a year for five years – $1.42 billion total — for State of Good Repair projects at CUNY’s senior colleges.
The first installment came in the 2008-2009 budget. CUNY is now approaching the end of the third of the five years of appropriations, though it is less than 20 percent through all the anticipated work. There are two reasons for the lag. The pre-construction process — design, bidding, review and approvals—can typically last 18 months or more. And Spitzer’s departure as governor slowed the flow of money for a time. The succeeding administration of David Paterson inserted an extra step in the process, requiring each project to receive final approval from the governor’s budget office before funds could be released and the work begun. “We had to educate them that this is critical maintenance,” Weinshall said. “And there are a lot of small construction firms involved so it’s keeping people working.”
From the program’s inception, 338 State of Good Repair projects have been initiated, totaling $220 million — ranging from a $350,000 retaining wall at Queens College to a multi-year $20 million rehabilitation of the exterior of City College’s Shepard Hall, one of the first projects funded and now nearing completion.
CUNY’s six community colleges certainly had their share of critical maintenance needs — but they hit a major funding snag that has only recently loosened. While capital funding for the senior colleges comes entirely from the state, by law the community colleges must be supported equally by the state and the city. To date, the state has approved $125 million, but it has held most of it back because the city has been slow to contribute its half. It wasn’t until last year — the third year of the capital program — that the city began to appropriate money for the community colleges, finally putting critical projects in the pipeline. This year, after many meetings between CUNY officials and City Council members and the borough presidents, the city included $31 million for the local colleges in its budget for the next fiscal year.
“We’re making headway,” Weinshall said. “We’re getting recognition by city officials that we desperately need those funds.”
No one is happier than Bronx Commu-nity College’s Mary Coleman, whose task it is to keep CUNY’s neediest buildings running. She remembers all too well the portable boilers that heated the campus after the great steam pipe collapse of 2007. She has never relished summer, for that matter: Only two of the college’s 26 buildings have central air conditioning, for now.
“I would dare say that ours has been a trial by fire,” Coleman said. “But it has put us, and CUNY, on a forward path of progress the likes of which the college has never seen.”
CUNY Matters – Critical Maintenance/SOGR – Potential Photo-Ops
Escalator Modernization in Vertical Campus – Active Construction
Library Roof Replacement – Finished
Student Union Elevator Renovation –Finished
Science Lab Upgrade – Finished
Shepard Hall Stair Pavilion – Active construction**
Biomedical Engineering Laboratory Renovation – Finished
Roof Replacement — Finished
Thomas Hunter Hall Window Replacement – Active Construction**
Roof Replacement at Haaren Hall – Active Construction
Rehabilitation of Stone Steps at Haaren Hall – Active Construction
Apex Entry Door Replacement – Finished
Carroll Street Pool Reconstruction – Finished
Carroll Street ADA upgrades – Ramp and elevator — Finished
Shuster Building ADA ramp – Active Construction
Training Kitchen in Namm Hall – Finished**
Voorhees Building Façade Renovation – Active Construction
Replacement of Melbourne Ave Retaining Wall – Finished
Renovation of Kupferberg Center for Performing Arts – Various parts of active project
Roof Replacement of Buildings 1R and 2R – Finished
Renovation of HVAC n 6S Science Building – Finished
Construction of Nursing Lab – Active Construction**
Relocation of Electrical Equipment to protect from rising groundwater – Finished**
Reconstruction of South Hall Roof and Eaves – Active Construction
ADA upgrade of bathrooms – Active Construction**
Renovation of space for new Sound Studio – Active Construction**
E Building Biology Teaching Laboratory – Finished
Center 3 Window Replacement – Active Construction**
Fire Alarm Upgrade – Active Construction