February 6, 2009

Profs Battle Milstein Progress

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The decade-long controversy surrounding Milstein Hall is not over yet. With construction set to begin in mid-March, several professors and alumni are voicing concerns over the financing and sustainability of the project.
In a letter to the editor printed last week in The Sun, faculty members, Cornell graduates and members of the community urged that the project be put on hold, in keeping with the University’s construction pause.
The letter stated that the $60 million project could be designed in “a much greener, more attractive and more economical way.” Despite these faculty concerns, however, the University is set to move forward with Milstein Hall.
Skorton has deemed the project “critical” to the University, due to its importance to the accreditation of the undergraduate architecture program.
Andy Linn ‘11, an architecture major, serves as student representative to the Milstein council, composed of architecture professors and the construction and project managers for Milstein Hall.
“The building is now crucial to the accreditation of the undergraduate program,” Linn said. “It’s huge. We’re the number one architecture program in the country and [losing accreditation] would not reflect well on the University as a whole.”
Limited space has long been an issue for AAP.
“We had a symposium last fall where we hosted seven visiting architects,” Linn said. “None of the functions could be held within our own facilities, which was very disappointing.”
The Milstein plan includes a 282-seat auditorium and 15 new design studios that will expand the resources of AAP. The fourth-year architecture studios are currently located off-campus on Esty Street in downtown Ithaca.
“That’s not the way undergraduates should go to school,” Linn said.
The faculty letter proposed renovations to the existing buildings of Sibley and Rand in lieu of the Milstein Hall project. Though this would likely be more cost effective, it does not solve AAP’s space problem or the discontinuity of the school’s separate programs.
“You see dozens and dozens of students running back and forth in the cold carrying models because we work in Rand and present in Sibley,” Linn said. “Milstein is designed to connect the two.”
Among the issues raised in the faculty letter, roughly half of the money for the project has yet to be acquired. The rest will come in part from University funding, to be paid over a period of 20 to 30 years, and in part from private donors.
Prof. Abby Cohn, linguistics, and Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, both signers of the letter, expressed concern for the staff cuts made in their departments in light of the $60 million project.
“I’m very worried about the University’s finances,” Sanders said. “I’m worried about employees I know who are going to be laid off and students who are going to see their tuition rise.”
“At a time when we are pinching pennies and starving other programs, I just really don’t see how this project makes sense,” she continued.
To the University and AAP, however, the project is pressing.
“It’s been 12 years,” Linn said. “We just want a building. We just need space.”
“I work in a building that has been gorgeously refurbished … for $20 million,” Sanders said, referring to White Hall.
Renovations to the existing buildings would not add space to the undergraduate architecture, art and planning programs.
In addition to the project’s budget, the sustainability of Milstein Hall is an area of significant debate.
The letter cited the project’s approval at the lowest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification standard.
The project’s LEED certification will not be known until construction begins and the plans are inspected. Evaluations are made in the form of a checklist, granting points to a project for specific areas deemed sustainable. The Milstein committee is working to garner as many LEED credits as possible to improve the project’s sustainability as it passes through the final design stages leading up to construction.
LEED is among 20-plus green building codes used worldwide. In the U.S., there are only 700 LEED silver, 600 LEED gold and 125 LEED platinum rated buildings since the system began in 1998.
“A building that’s LEED certified is very sustainable,” Linn said. Even the lowest LEED certification denotes high sustainability.
The faculty members who signed the letter, however, would like to see the project’s sustainability standards raised.
“I think that we always have to do the best we can, and that’s why I want to see this building put under the pause so we can have a real conversation about it and see if we can do better,” Cohn said.
Cohn was involved in drafting a resolution to discuss Milstein Hall at the upcoming Faculty Senate meeting on Wednesday.
She joined the Faculty Senate three years ago after her involvement in the Redbud Woods parking lot protest, in which she felt there had been a “breakdown in decision making.”
“Some of the things we included in The Sun letter are frankly issues I feel I am entitled to have an opinion about,” Cohn said, “but on some level they are none of my business.”
According to Cohn, part of the problem lies in the lack of communication between the University, the faculty and the student body. Though the Undergraduate Assembly exists to facilitate such interplay, its role is not of the level that Cohn deems necessary.
“I think that committee could be treated in a much more central way,” Cohn said.
She also stated that the Capital Funding and Priorities Committee, crucial to decision-making on budget issues and building projects, has no faculty representation.
Both professors called for reform in communication between the administration and the faculty.
“To a political scientist this has been a very flawed decision-making process,” Sanders said.