Mar
09

USC’s Year of Construction

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University is building like never before – and planning for more

By JAMES T. HAMMOND – jhammond@thestate.com

USC is in the midst of an unprecedented, $316 million construction spurt in downtown Columbia — with 20 projects under way or on the drawing board.

The school’s fledgling Innovista research campus is a focus. But most projects are not Innovista-related. Instead, they are replacements for aging facilities.

The building blitz includes a baseball stadium, band and dance rehearsal halls, and well-appointed laboratories for nanotechnology and hydrogen researchers.

In addition to those projects, USC last month began to talk about taking advantage of the economic downturn — including low interest rates and reduced construction costs — to pursue other long-delayed projects. Some are decades-old, having been turned away time and again in favor of others.

Building as much as it can now could save USC millions of dollars, officials say. But, without the aid of state money, student fees might rise to offset the cost, they warn.

NEW SPACE

Strings students and faculty will be the first to move into a new home, on Park Street in the Vista.

Anna Mesa, a ninth-grade strings player at Spring Valley High School, thinks the facility will make her and other young students — now in the community outreach String Project — want to attend USC.

“The room we are in right now does not have good acoustics,” Mesa said. “This will sound better, and people will be more motivated. It will just be nicer.”

The site’s more than 16,000 square feet of instructional and office space will allow instructors to engage 300 students “from the ages of 8 to 88,” said Tayloe Harding, dean of USC’s music school.

The space will be tucked into a city-funded parking garage, next to the Colonial Center and the main music school building, on Assembly Street.

Like Harding, John Van Zee, director of the National Science Foundation Center for Fuel Cells at USC, said space is everything.

Moving his one-of-a-kind center into the Horizon Building on Blossom Street will raise its visibility in the scientific world — and provide badly needed labs for a growing cadre of scientists.

The fuel cell center now is Assembly Street’s Swearingen Engineering Center, designed more than 20 years ago.

“We have 10 (startup) companies in the space now, and we have no space to work with our international partners,” Van Zee said.

NOW’S THE TIME

USC also hopes to launch other new buildings despite a lack of state support and the weak economy.

State lawmakers haven’t been warm to approving bond bills lately, stranding some building projects on USC’s wish list. The current economic climate also would seem to rule out taxpayer-funded construction — beyond research space, which is funded separately — on state campuses.

But USC officials say they see a chance to address languishing needs and save money.

Because of the slowing economy, construction companies are beginning to offer lower prices. Also, low interest rates — the lowest in years — would slash millions from USC’s cost to borrow.

USC plans to pay itself to renovate two older academic buildings at Pickens and Greene streets — LeConte, at a cost of $19.6 million, and Petigru, at a cost of $14.4 million. It also plans to pay an additional $18 million to renovate the Health Sciences building at Greene and Sumter streets.

Streetscaping projects on Sumter and Pickens could add an additional $3 million in costs. Officials also want to raise $10 million a year for deferred maintenance.

However, some of these projects will require increased student fees, officials say. Still, William Hubbard, chairman of the USC trustees’ Building and Grounds Committee, and other members of that committee agreed last month that USC should move now. No official vote was taken, but Hubbard will report to the full board when it next meets.

AWAITING FUNDING

Meanwhile, three key projects still are without funding.

• The Moore School of Business is in the middle of negotiating the lease of its current building to a government agency. That could generate a revenue stream to build a new $100 million business school at Greene and Lincoln streets in Innovista.

• Another top priority is a new law school, said Rick Kelly, USC’s chief financial officer. But so far, there is no money for it.

USC first discussed plans for a new law school in 2001. Since then, the estimated cost has risen to $89 million from $45 million.

“The price has doubled, and we haven’t even broken ground,” lamented trustee Miles Loadholt, a Barnwell lawyer and board vice chairman.

If and when USC builds a new law school, the old law center on Assembly Street would require renovation for other academic uses. Cost: $60 million.

• For students, one of the highest priorities is a new clinic to replace the 35-year-old Thomson Student Health Center. The facility has outlived its mission, officials agree. But they have no plan in place to replace it.

Instead, trustees last year authorized a $450,000 study after students voiced their concerns. The study is to be completed in May.

$900 MILLION MORE

USC’s long-term needs are immense, Kelly said.

Twenty-two projects could cost an additional $900 million, the Building and Grounds Committee concluded, including:

• Demolition of the old Benson School west of Pickens Street in the Wheeler Hill neighborhood. Cost: $4.5 million

• Renovation of Wheat Street’s Blatt Physical Education Center. Cost: $10 million to $37 million

• Construction of Foundation Square, Innovista’s landscaped central square at Lincoln and Greene streets. Cost: $10 million

• Renovation of the Jones Physical Science Center at Main and Greene. Cost: $80 million

• Renovation of Barnwell and Hamilton halls, historic buildings at Pickens and Pendleton streets. Cost: $35 million.

USC also wants to build on a prime location at Sumter, College and Main streets, at the foot of the Horseshoe.

The school’s Byrnes Center office building, once the city’s federal building, now is on the site. But it is slated for eventual demolition, to be replaced by an unspecified 200,000-square-foot academic facility.

USC and the nonprofit USC Development Foundation control almost half the block, which offers some of the best views on campus — straight down the length of the Horseshoe.

“We can put together a two-acre tract,” Kelly said, adding the Byrnes Center “begs to be torn down.”

The site also begs for a signature building, he said. Estimated cost: $100 million.

http://www.thestate.com/local/story/340756.html
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