Years of neglect haunt old buildings

Deferred maintenance — a euphemistic term for years of neglect — has left the University with a backlog of building repairs and renovations. The amount of money the University needs to bring decaying buildings up to code has more than tripled, from $300 million in 1993 to about $1 billion this year. To address this problem, officials can either raze old facilities and construct new ones, or make necessary repairs and do remodeling. University officials say the best way to slash deferred maintenance expenses is to junk rather than restore decommissioned buildings like Nicholson Hall and Jones Hall in Minneapolis and the Dairy Experimental Barn in St. Paul. At stake, literally, is the face of the University.
Several University structures have gone almost beyond repair. For instance, $6 million is needed to upgrade Nicholson’s water system, update its heating system, remove the toxins accumulating in its condemned basement and cut other deficiencies. The one thing that might save it from the wrecking ball is a place in the National Register of Historic Places. Pillsbury Hall, constructed in 1889, is listed in the registry of historic buildings. It will cost $3.4 million to increase Pillsbury’s accessibility to the disabled and renew its heating, electrical, fire-prevention and plumbing systems. The structure falls terribly short of health and safety standards, and without complete renovations in the next few years, it may eventually collapse. But its historical value protects it from destruction.
Other buildings have not been so lucky. In 1993, The zoology and botany buildings were bulldozed after experts agreed that the $100 million needed to revamp them was too expensive. Their beauty failed to compensate for their eroding foundation. They were replaced by the Basic Sciences and Biomedical Engineering Building, a new state-of-the-art research center priced at $62.7 million. The fate of Nicholson Hall is not yet known. Built in 1890, it may have historical significance. But last month Bob Kvavik, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, said that completion of the new Carlson School of Management will allow administrators to move East Bank units to the West Bank with the hope that Nicholson and Jones can be demolished.
The drastic measure of tearing down old structures to shave off deferred maintenance is a result of scarce state funding. However, the Minnesota Legislature must not bear all the blame. Prior to 1990, Facilities Management — which was then known as the Physical Plant — had no maintenance budget for buildings. New buildings were made to accommodate more students, but little money was reserved for the upkeep of old facilities. The accounting system had no way of tracking backlogs of repairs and renovation.
Evidently, management oversight compounded the problem. Only recently has deferred maintenance become a budgetary priority. Since 1993, the University has spent $30 million per year on repairs and renovation, but the backlog collected during the past 50 years makes it difficult to catch up. On the Twin Cities campus, 72 buildings are still deficient in safety and 21 lack adequate disability access. The destruction of crumbling buildings is one way to solve the problem, but it’s not without consequences. The University’s aesthetic charm is likely to diminish with the bulldozing of historic buildings.