The University of Maryland College Park has embarked on an ambitious series of construction projects, totaling more than $200 million, that administrators there say will transform the campus for years to come.
From playing fields to plant science research to the performing arts, the university has pursued broad-based plans for several years that now are taking shape as the most visible construction push at College Park in decades.
"It's like Christmas, Hanukkah and all the holidays wrapped up into one," said Thomas A. Fretz, dean of the university's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. His college has been graced with a $48 million plant sciences research center, dedicated last month.
The projects underscore the state's commitment to its flagship university, officials say - but others are nevertheless somewhat awed by both the scope and the price tag of the efforts.
"It's really been, in some ways, a difficult thing to explain to faculty and others, at a time when the operating budget is under such stress, that we're building these wonderful new facilities," said William E. Kirwan, president of the campus.
A quick historical note might help explain: In 1988, with the
recasting of Maryland's public system of higher education, College Park was affirmed as the state's flagship university. The state campuses were promised an infusion of financial support and an annual capital - or construction and renovation - budget of $100 million. College Park's share of that budget was roughly two-fifths, or about $40 million a year.
When the recession hit Maryland in 1990, [See Build, Page 4] state budgets were cut for the public campuses by about 20 percent. Since then, administrators have eliminated academic offerings, sharply raised tuition, frozen the salaries of many faculty members and staff, and delayed making new hires. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has put higher education at the top of his list, but that imperative has translated into stable and modest increases rather than a major infusion of new cash, at a time when many other state programs have been cut.
Construction, however, continues almost unabated.
In the past two years, at College Park, the university has either started or completed a new plant sciences research center, $43 million; a new wing on a center for academic computing that will run at least $13 million; a $47 million student recreation center designed as much for weekend athletes as for varsity standouts; a $5 million renovation of a vacant building to create a new student center concentrating on African and African-American cultures; and a renovation of Ritchie Coliseum, an indoor arena, costing nearly $10 million.
Most impressively, the $107 million Maryland Center for the Performing Arts, which will have the look of a secular cathedral, ,, will stand at a new northern gateway for the campus off University Boulevard. If completed as expected, it will contain a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 350-seat recital hall, a 650-seat proscenium theater, a 200-seat dance studio, and a 200-seat experimental theater.
The center has been championed as a focal point for the arts not only for the campus, which has developed sterling academic programs in music and drama, but for Washington-area suburbs and the state of Maryland. Prince George's County is expected to chip in toward the cost, and university administrators expect to solicit private gifts for the center as well.
"I'm of two minds," Maynard Mack Jr., a professor of English at College Park, said of the new performing arts center, which is expected to open by the year 2000. "It's very important for the arts, and in a state that tends to spend for the sciences and not the arts, that's wonderful."
But, he noted, heat, electricity, utilities and upkeep for the center will cost the university several million dollars a year, at a time when the university has left some faculty positions unfilled to save costs.
"Everybody is nervous where the money is coming from given the economic climate and the citizens' obsession about tax reductions," Mack said. "It does you no good to have a beautiful shell [of a building] that you can't afford to maintain."
Another professor recalled the construction in the early 1990s of handsome, and expensive, water fountains in the center of the university's main academic quadrangle, even as faculty raises were erased by budget cuts.
But the arts center is intended, university officials say, to emphasize and enhance an area of growing renown. Some faculty members suggest that it is also an attempt by the university to give a place of prominence within the university to other areas than sports. The first thing someone entering the campus from the northern entrance would see is the enormous horseshoe of Byrd Stadium, a football complex which has seen $60 million in renovations this decade.
The Maryland Center, by far the largest building on campus, might change the way people think about the school's facilities. That's an important shift, particularly at a time when some Maryland legislators expect state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat and a big campus booster, to propose a replacement for the 41-year-old Cole Field House.
A new basketball stadium to replace Cole would be a big-ticket item, likely to cost $60 million by some estimates. Even modest repairs of the field house would cost $11 million or so. In the recent past, Kirwan has been guarded on the subject - when asked earlier this year, he talked about the need first to make faculty salaries more competitive.
In the meantime, construction workers are busily putting together new parking garages and playing fields to replace space commandeered by more pressing priorities. All this activity has disrupted campus life, holding up traffic and parking, students say, even as they acknowledge the new facilities may improve life for later generations of students.
"It's a little bit of a hardship for anyone coming through right now, but we'll have a beautiful campus," said senior Bill Farkas, 21, an agriculture and research economics major who commutes from nearby Hyattsville. "It's getting better, but it might not be the greatest thing at the moment."
Said J.R. Rosenberg, 19, a premed student, "It bothers me that I'm going to be a second semester sophomore and I get closed out of classes, but they can afford to build all these buildings. And they can't add more staff, but they can afford this construction."
To be fair, the campus has been involved in extensive rehabilitation and renovations of campus buildings - particularly aging dormitories - for the past decade, and the annual expense has remained relatively constant, University of Maryland System officials say. But the projects have created a crater-pocked landscape throughout the campus marking the sites of future buildings, and scaffolding adorns many of the older ones.
The buildings will be paid for with money from federal agencies, private donors, taxpayer financed bonds (mostly down the line), and also, in some cases, from mandatory student fees.
Campus officials say these projects, far from showing profligacy, represent an effort simply to match peers - major public universities such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, or the University of Michigan. By several measures of the size and caliber of its physical plant, College Park trails these schools.
"I look at it as a blessing that even in tight budget times we've been able to get some fantastic new facilities," Kirwan said.
William L. Thomas, the university's vice president for student affairs, describes the need for a new campus recreation center, which will include gymnasiums, racquetball and squash courts, indoor and outdoor pools, an indoor jogging track, and weight training areas: "We put weight rooms now almost anywhere we can find them. Our swimming facilities are really rather pathetic. I This is a catch up of a considerable size for us, and long overdue."
Or consider the words of Fretz in talking about the new plant sciences center: "It replaces facilities that were old 40 years ago." The six-story center, plunked down in the heart of the campus at Regents and Field House drives, will provide an additional 180,000 square feet of laboratories, lecture halls, and office space.
In packing up materials from the old building, Fretz said, agriculture department faculty headed for the archives on the top floor. "We had to chase the squirrels out of the attic," he said with a laugh. The new building will house the departments of entomology - people who study insects - agronomy, agriculture biotechnology, horticulture, and others. It will include state-of-the-art labs in which to clone plant genes, "growth cabinets" with strict controls on temperature, humidity and light.
In addition, when it is open for business in February, the building will become the home of the fledgling landscape architecture program. Each year of students - freshman, sophomore, and so on - will have a large studio, with a separate table and drafting space assigned for each student.
"When a student takes a look at College Park against another institution like us, there ought not to be a gap," said Charles F. Sturtz, the university's vice president for administrative affairs. "From a facilities standpoint, we're going to be substantially better."
Pub Date: 12/01/96