Our very own Berlin

In the summer of 1996, I stood at the edge of what may well have been the largest and most expensive construction zone of the past half-century of human existence: Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. In the wake of the fall of the Wall in 1989, the entire war-damaged, Cold War-neglected city center was being razed and completely rebuilt from the ground up.

Never in my life have I witnessed such a vast beehive of cranes, cement trucks, earth moving equipment, and, of course,  thousands of construction workers, all swarming over vast tracts of excavated urban real estate and dozens of steel building frames in various stages of completion. In one massive effort,  21st century architectural wonders were springing up everywhere to evict, once and for all, the lingering ghosts of 1945.

Yesterday, I walked once again (as I do almost daily) through another construction zone that never fails to remind me of Potsdamer Platz, albeit on a much smaller scale: the UW-Madison campus. And on that occasion the same questions occurred to me that always do:

  • Where, in this time of fiscal stress for the University, did all the money for this construction come from?
  • And more importantly perhaps, how much will the new construction continue to cost the University after it’s all built?

I realized that I had never consciously run across any document, official or otherwise, that directly addressed these questions, especially the latter one.   I surmised that if I had these questions, lots of other campus citizens might too, especially students facing tuition hikes and faculty and staff experiencing pay rescissions and mandatory furloughs (that’s pretty much everyone, isn’t it?).

So I did some digging and found the following:

First:  In case you never manage to get out of your own particular corner of campus and therefore can’t appreciate the full scale of what’s going on, here’s a birds-eye overview of ongoing major construction projects.  Swing by each of the listed sites sometime and persuade yourself that these are not mere renovations of existing buildings.

And from this quarterly report from Facilities Planning & Management, we learn that

“The University of Wisconsin – Madison currently has approximately $1.5 billion worth of capital projects at various phases of planning, design, and construction. Since 2005, 39 major projects at a total cost of $738 million have been completed. Currently, 5 major projects budgeted at $44 million total are in planning, 17 major projects budgeted at $624 million total are in design, 30 major projects budgeted at $822 million total are in construction, and 10 major projects budgeted at $253 million total are enumerated in the campus six year plan.”

Folks, that is real money.

As to where all this money comes from, we get a partial picture from this September 2009 article from UW-Madison News and this May 2009 article from Wisconsin State Journal.   In the latter, for example, we learn that “[b]oth the Chazen and Education projects are fully funded by gifts, while the biochemistry building will get about half of its funding — roughly $50 million — through gifts.”

Not discussed in any document I could find (in an admittedly cursory search) is the question of recurring costs associated with new building space:

For every new office or lab space, for every new square foot of floor space, the University presumably must have plans to staff those spaces and to provide janitorial and maintenance support.  As far as I know, private donations for new construction rarely include provisions for those expenses.

So who is hiring the new people and paying for the maintenance resources that all these new buildings presumably imply, and what will be the impact, if any, on future University budgets?

A related question:  Is it always in the University’s best (fiscal) interest to accept private donations for new construction, or are there situations in which accepting a multi-million dollar building donation might actually mean a net negative for the University’s bottom line?

If any reader has information relevant to any of the above questions, please use the “reply” space below to educate the rest of us.

View of the construction site of the Union South and  the new Discovery Center  (May 2009).

View of the construction site of the Union South and the new Discovery Center (May 2009).

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