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Push to Increase STEM Student Body Helps Boost College Building Programs

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Columbia, Cornell, Fordham and New York universities are among the region's institutions with major plans to grow their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) student bodies and, as a result, build new facilities. Drawing on long-term, billion-dollar capital investment programs, several have already begun to add space for classrooms, research, collaboration and even residential housing. Even public schools with smaller, dwindling budgets are including a STEM push in long-range plans to add or modernize facilities, many of which are 100 years old.

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The local efforts are in line with New York City's plans to become a world-class science and technology hub but they are not restricted to the city. Earlier this month, the University of Pennsylvania opened a world-class, 78,000-sq-ft nanotechnology center in Philadelphia, and Buffalo University (BU) broke ground Oct. 15 on a $375-million medical school in Niagara, N.Y.

Such aggressive STEM and other building plans as well as how schools propose to finance them dominated discussions at ENR New York's "Making the Grade" higher education conference, held Oct. 16 in New York.

"There is a persistent shortage of tech talent," Cathy Dove, vice president of Cornell NYC Tech, told attendees. Like its rivals, Cornell Tech aims to change that. Completion of the first phase of its planned $2-billion Roosevelt Island campus is set for 2017. Funded in part through philanthropy and $100 million from the city, Cornell Tech plans to sign a lease with the city in December, Dove says.

Demolition and abatement is expected to begin on the island in early 2014, with on-site development and construction of the First Academic Building (FAB) later that year. Dove says the school will likely have New York's "most significant barging program to date" to carry materials to and from the island.

Forest City Ratner Cos. is the developer for both the FAB and the planned 240,000-sq-ft "corporate co-location" building, whose planned tenants will include startups and established firms, Dove says.

While both private and public institutions are expanding, funding remains a major dividing line between the two sectors. Private schools have the advantage of sizable financial endowments, but public schools including those under the City University of New York (CUNY) system are grappling with shrinking state and local support, speakers said.

With half a million full- and part-time students, CUNY is "the elephant in the city in terms of education," says Robert Lemieux, director of CUNY Design, Construction and Management. Tuition is about $4,000 per year, which is not enough to cover costs for its 300 existing structures, he says.

However, CUNY still has $3 billion leftover from the last few years in its "coffers that we will be spending over the next five years," says Gwen Perlman, CUNY director of Capital Budget and Finance.

"The only way we can sustain our facilities is through continued government support," Lemieux says, adding that the institution has tried to raise funds through philanthropy "but we don't have people, or at least not that many, writing the big checks" that private universities do.

Funding issues are spurring the public side to become more creative, says Bob Fraser, deputy general manager of the State University Construction Fund. BU's 540,000-sq-ft medical school project, for example, was made possible by a mix of public and private financing including a university fundraising campaign; an NYSUNY Challenge Grant; and land donation from the First Niagara Financial Group.

On the latter, the bank was initially approached for the sale of its site. "Then that morphed into 'Could you give it to the University of Buffalo through philanthropy?' And they agreed," Fraser says. "Then we said, 'You know, we have a lot of problems with asbestos abatement and demolition, could you knock it over first?'" The bank agreed again, he says, "because as a private owner they struggled far less than we would in doing that."

Fraser says he expects that the public sector will increasingly consider a greater variety of ways to raise capital including entering public-private partnerships.

"We are finding more and more of our institutions ... are leveraging whatever they have. If they have real estate assets, then they are putting equity into it that way," he says. "But clearly now, I think the days of waiting for the [state] legislature to act solely to finance higher education development are gone."

His comments were in stark contrast to those from large private institutions at the conference.

"The reality is that, in most cases, we have great sources of income: net income from operations; we borrow; and we have the tremendous benefit of philanthropy," says Joseph Ienuso, Columbia's executive vice president for University Facilities. "Folks write enormous checks to the vision of what will happen to the buildings that we build."

Columbia's rate of capital investment over the last nine or 10 years is more than $3 billion and it likely will add another $2 billion of work during the next few years, Ienuso says. The school's Morningside Heights campus is its largest with about 15.2 million sq. ft of space, and its Medical Center university buildings, excluding the hospital, take up about 2.2 million sq. ft The school is in the early phase of building a state-of-the-art graduate medical education building, he adds.

Columbia's multibillion-dollar Manhattanville project is under way and will add another 6.8 million sq ft., which will help to secure the future of the university, he says. "We have become as a [higher ed] group very, very good at finding 400 square feet and squeezing a new research group in. But that's not the way that a great, global university needs to run. We need to be very, very strategic."

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