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April 2, 1998

$138 million in capital state funds allows welcome changes in Pitt's facilities plan

Last year, the Board of Trustees approved a facilities plan outlining Pitt construction and renovation projects through the year 2007.

But in January, Gov. Tom Ridge threw a much-welcomed monkey wrench into the plan by pledging $138 million in state funds over the next five years for Pitt capital projects, including $38 million for a convocation center.

The additional state funds weren't a complete surprise — Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and others lobbied hard for the money — but facilities planners had not figured the $138 million into the document's timetable.

As a result, the administration is "retumbling the numbers" to see whether Pitt can move faster on certain projects, according to Robert F. Pack, vice provost for Academic Planning and Resources Management.

In updating the University Senate's plant utilization and planning (PUP) committee on the facilities plan, Pack said it's possible Pitt will complete two major projects — the $32.4 million Multi-Purpose Academic Complex (MPAC) planned for the corner of Forbes Avenue and Bouquet Street, and $52.5 million in renovations and additions to Hillman Library — before the convocation center is constructed.

While the plan did not set deadlines for the three projects, Pitt administrators had previously assumed the convocation center would be finished ahead of the other two because it was most likely to attract outside contributions.

Chancellor Nordenberg has said the University hopes to complete the convocation center within five years.

Because the three projects require varying amounts of approval from the City, "it's still up in the air" when Pitt will complete any of them, Pack said.

But, he added, the extra $138 million in state funds may hasten progress on those and other projects, including $20 million in improvements to the Cathedral of Learning.

Under the Facilities Plan, Pitt is scheduled to install new elevators in the Cathedral, a sprinkler system (the 61-year-old skyscraper pre-dates current fire codes, but its variance eventually will expire, Pack noted) and a new infrastructure that will bring air conditioning and computer networking to the whole building; no longer will individual offices need costly, individual air conditioners and computer ports.

Aesthetically, too, the Cathedral is long overdue for a makeover, Pack said. "Faculty offices are often quite shabby. Furniture is old and many of them haven't been painted for years," Pack said. "The ground floor is embarrassing. The fact is, most people who enter the Cathedral enter through the ground floor." Pack voiced particular distaste for the lockers on the ground floor. "They date back to the days when everybody came here by streetcar and needed someplace to drop off their coats. Today, we only rent about half of those lockers. We could get rid of many of them without inconveniencing students," he said.

The only thing worth preserving on the ground floor is its green slate floor, Pack said. He cited the recent addition of a shiny new Starbucks coffee shop as "an example of what we want to do to improve the aesthetic appearance of the ground floor." Under the facilities plan, now in its first year, Pitt expects to spend about $6 million annually to preserve existing buildings, $3 million on academic program-based renovations (new laboratories, for example) and $1.5 million to renovate classrooms.

Thanks to the $138 million windfall pledged by Gov. Ridge, the Provost's office hopes to increase the annual budget for classroom renovations to $2 million, Pack said. See related story this issue.

— Bruce Steele

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