March 15, 2011

University Says $630 Million WCMC Building in New York City on Schedule

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Weill Cornell Medical College’s new medical research building in New York City — the most expensive building project in Cornell’s history — is on schedule and under budget, according to Stephen Cohen, executive vice provost and executive vice dean of the medical school.

“We already have a reputation for clinical excellence, and the new facility will aid us in improving our standings in medical research, allow us to hire great faculty and expand our research capacity,” said Joanne DeStefano, vice president for financial affairs and chief financial officer.

The building, on East 69th Street, will nearly double existing research space for the medical college, allow it to compete with peer institutions and speed research on pressing health issues such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disease, according to DeStefano and Cohen.

While the project — approved by the University’s Board of Trustees in January 2010 — had an original budget of $650 million, the current cost estimate for construction is $630 million, according to DeStefano.

“We’re fortunate that we’re constructing this building during a time when there’s not a lot of other construction going on,” Cohen said. “We’ve gotten very favorable prices from contractors, which contributed to bringing the budget lower than we’d anticipated.”

To finance construction, the University borrowed $225 million in tax-exempt debt, DeStefano said. The remainder of the costs will be covered by philanthropy. As of a few months ago, more than $360 million in gifts had been raised, DeStefano said.

Despite its cost, the expansion was “necessary for the medical college to grow its research enterprise” because of increasing competition with other medical institutions, she said.

“The lack of adequate research space has impacted the University’s ability to compete with our peers,” DeStefano said.

Richard Thomas, senior director of capital planning, said that researchers at Cornell’s medical college have 30- to 40-percent less space in which to work than those at peer institutions in comparably sized cities.

According to a 2007 PricewaterhouseCoopers study of nine medical institutions, WCMC had the lowest total square footage of the institutions devoted to research. The new medical research building will add 13 floors of laboratories spanning 350,000 square feet to the medical college, allowing it to surpass Northwestern and NYU in total research square footage.

“Weill has had very limited research space per person for many years,” Thomas said. “And while we have done our best to maximize space in existing buildings, it was simply impossible to make sure everyone had enough to do their jobs.”

Besides expanding research space, the building will also promote more collaborative research between Weill faculty, according to Thomas.

“The main concept of the building is translational research,” he said. While, in the past, laboratories were assigned to one doctor who would work in isolation within his or her department, the new medical research building will have an open laboratory environment for researchers to work alongside clinical doctors to target specific diseases, he said.

Thomas said he hopes this design would help to speed the process of research.

“This architectural reflection of translational research theory — where all the lab benches and rooms … are all open to each other so scientists can see, hear and talk about what they’re doing — will move along discoveries of how to cure things in a more rapid fashion,” Thomas said.

Because of the economic recession in 2008, “the University and its Board of Trustees conducted additional due diligence to ensure the investment was sound before construction began,” DeStefano said.

13 stories of the 476,000 square foot, 18-story building are slated to open in the summer of 2013.

“We spent the first year excavating the site because it was dense New York City rock … and now we’re starting the superstructure, [or] all the floors above ground level,” Thomas said. After the superstructure is complete in May or June 2012, construction will focus on finishing the interior of the building.

Due to careful planning, the project will have minimal impact on the environment, Thomas said.

“Extensive studies have been done, and no significant impacts have been projected as a result of anything that’s going to happen in the building,” Thomas said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that all the mechanical systems and filtration systems are well-designed and well above what is required.”

Cohen said that, ultimately, the new building will not only accelerate scientific research but also help advance the mission of WCMC.

“Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not the mission of the medical college,” Cohen said. “The mission of the medical college is to take knowledge from our laboratories and convert it into practical, medical know-how that will benefit our patients — and that’s really the benefit of this project.”

Original Author: Akane Otani