Is UMass Building a Better Tomorrow, or Digging Itself Into a Hole?

Stepping in time, the Minutemen Marching Band has little idea what lurks beyond the safety of its practice hall. Covered in eldrich vine and crusted ichor, this edifice sits and gazes upon the marching band with unseeing eyes. On a campus of seemingly endless construction projects, why is it there? What keeps old buildings standing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and what does it take to get something else built? What is being done to prop up this university?

The UMass campus is on the verge of making some of the most drastic changes to its structure since the 1960’s and 70’s. On the surface, new academic buildings are in the works, the New Laboratory Science Building is well on its way to completion, and there have been talks of revamping the campus grounds to be far more pedestrian-friendly. The administration has a sort of guideline that it decides many of its construction and renovation projects in advance, called the Master Plan. Last updated in 2007, it has essentially been the same plan since 1993, and the times have certainly changed.

Up to this point, the Master Plan has not been fully followed, and changes in the financial position of the country, even the world, have seriously affected the university’s ability to follow its plans. First and foremost, the school has fallen critically behind in its maintenance. As it says on the Master Plan website, there are certain glaring problems that have not been adequately dealt with, or dealt with at all:

  • Current deferred modernization of $2 billion impacts academic, research, and student life programs
  • Almost a million square feet of space in poor condition
  • Nineteen buildings not in compliance with local building codeInfrastructure systems require substantial improvement and expansion (storm water, electric, etc.)
  • No swing space is available to facilitate renovation or demolition
  • Historic buildings are an important connection to institutional heritage, but frequently underutilized

What this means is that whilst new buildings are being constructed, the rest of the campus seems to be falling into decay. Buildings commonly brought up are Bartlett Hall, Hills, the Old Chapel, the labyrinthine Morrill Halls, and the list goes on. Hills is technically condemned, Morrill is a labyrinth, the Old Chapel has been closed since 1996, and Bartlett has aged very poorly. Even the Horse Barn has a place, being the main barn used during UMass’ time as an agricultural college. There are plans in the works with all of these buildings, but nothing has been revealed to the public yet.

Current plans to remedy these deficiencies include the construction of a “New Academic Classroom Building,” which is to house the Journalism, Communications, and Linguistics department, and seating for at least 1,400 students. Jim Hunt, Communications Manager at the university’s Facilities Planning Division, said that the NACB will serve as a new “center of the campus.” It is being built at the north end of the campus pond in a “L” shape, so it stretches around Hasbrouck Hall, with frontage on North Pleasant street. In the middle, Hunt said, will be, “A new courtyard, so it will be a more dynamic, more useful area.” With a price tag of $85 million, construction is supposed to begin within two years, and be completed by 2014.

There will be some fate in store for Bartlett, but there seem to be no definitive plans as to what exactly that is. Hunt said it will most likely be replaced, because, like Hills, “They cost more to renovate than replace.” However, this distinction is lost when a building can be considered historical. South College is an example of this because, as Hunt said, “It’s historical, we need to find a way to fix it that won’t be overly expensive.”

A term once used for the Campus Center was, "A post-Soviet concrete monolith."

Hunt also went on to say that even buildings like the Campus Center and the Fine Arts Center can be considered historical by this point. “They’ve been around for at least 40 years or so, they’re technically considered historic.” Even the decrepit Horse Barn is considered historic, as it was built only 10 years after the Old Chapel’s construction in 1884.

But preserving the old doesn’t quite help those who need help now, like the students who have been cramped in doubles retrofitted into quads, and over 250 transfer students left without a dorm in September 2011. One building under construction now may assist in easing many student’s housing woes, or it may prove to be yet another barrier placed by the university. Janam Anand, Secretary of Registry at the Student Government Association, said that while new buildings are beneficial, there are “questions of priorities for some new buildings.” Anand lived in a converted lounge during her freshman year, and she said that the administration needed to “improve the quality of housing as well, I would have loved a lounge to go to rather than not have the option.”

The Commonwealth Honors College Residential Complex, which began being built in November 2011, may or may not aid with the housing shortages. The complex will house up to 1,500 honors students as early as 2013. At this current stage, regular students may be left in the same cramped conditions they’ve been faced with for years to come. A representative at the Commonwealth Honors College office said that housing is currently just for honors students enrolled with the Commonwealth College, “but as it is still in planning stages, it may be opened up, but for now, just Commonwealth students.” Anand disagreed to this, saying that, “because of the limitations to housing, I don’t see why they wouldn’t allow regular students to live there.”

There is much that’s discussed in the UMass administration that regular students may likely never see. One consolation Hunt gave was that “what people mistake for complexity is thoroughness; once it gets past chancellor committee and board of trustees, it just has to go through routine.” He went on to say that once contractors and designers are found, “it’s bing-bang-boom,” and done.

There are many improvements coming to the UMass campus within the next five-to-10 years, too late for the leaving seniors, and perhaps even too late for the incoming freshmen, Time will only tell if the future plans of the campus can match the hard reality of a global economic depression. Perhaps one day the Horse Barn will be a fully-restored monument to the university’s agricultural legacy, as a beacon of historical pride much like the Old Chapel. Or perhaps the rest of the campus will match up with the Horse Barn, slowly crumbling until it all fades into bemused obscurity.

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