Condemned basement

by Jessica Steeno

Health casualties caused by environmental toxins collecting in the condemned basement of Nicholson Hall have been mounting for more than a year. Officials hope to move the sick University workers to safety soon, but employees say the move cannot come soon enough.
Mold, mildew and fungus associated with water leakage in the basement of Nicholson have caused or aggravated upper respiratory infections, severe asthma attacks and, in one case, pneumonia among its workers.
Currently, the Institute of International Studies and Programs and the China Center reside on the floor with the leakage problems. Eric Kruse, associate vice president for Facilities Management, said Nicholson’s basement has been condemned for more than five years.
“We had to call 911 twice for one staff member because she couldn’t breathe,” said Kay Thomas, associate director of the institute. The staff member has asthma, and the poor air quality caused severe attacks, Thomas said.
Thomas developed pneumonia and has not worked a full day in the office since March because two separate doctors have ordered her not to go back. She said her pneumonia might not have been caused by the mildew problems, but rather, the air quality in her office aggravates it.
“It’s not just me, either,” she said. “For about a year, people in my office have been in and out with upper respiratory infections.”
Employees of the China Center have complained of similar health problems. One student worker quit last year, director David Pui said, because she developed a severe case of asthma.
Pui also said the leaking water in the office has forced the center to close off one of its rooms. The leakage seeped into an adjacent room this spring, and Facilities Management removed the carpet and put filing cabinets on pine platforms so the water would not damage the paper inside.
The offices above are not the only spots with problems. Plaster from the ceiling of the basement auditorium in Nicholson falls daily — so badly that more than 25 of the seats cannot be used.
The basement departments are scheduled to be moved, but administrators say the move depends on when a space can be reserved for them in the Academic Health Center.
“We’re trying to get them out as quickly as possible,” Kruse said.
Other departments in Nicholson will probably stay put until the new Carlson School of Management building is finished in the fall. Bob Kvavik, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, said the building should be complete by fall 1997, and the new building should free up enough space for all of the departments in Nicholson and Jones Hall — another building with leakage problems. Kvavik said all the moves associated with the completion of the Carlson building will cost the University about $10 million.
The Nicholson Hall problem is a result of the backlogging of maintenance and systems renewal commonly referred to as “deferred maintenance.” The University would have to spend about $1 billion to bring all of its buildings into compliance with health, safety and accessibility codes. A report issued to the Board of Regents last week indicated 11 other buildings are scheduled to be removed from use this fiscal year.
Among those being decommissioned are Jones Hall, the Music Education building and the Dairy Experimental Barn in St. Paul.
Administrators say that decommissioning these buildings will shave at least $10 million off of the backlog of deferred maintenance.
Officials have not yet decided whether the decommissioned buildings will eventually be torn down or renovated. Kruse said some of the buildings are very old — Nicholson was constructed in 1890 — and might be included on the registry of historic buildings. Kruse also said that the University may be able to tear down buildings on the list if their use and history has been properly documented and it has been shown that using the building would not be practical.
Kruse said that it would cost about $6 million to bring Nicholson up to code.
Some residents of Nicholson are disappointed with the decision to take the building out of use because of its historical significance.
Al Balkcum, director of Global Campus, whose office currently resides on the first floor, said, “I think it’s a statement about our culture. We tend to build new things and not pay as much attention to the old. Our solution to things is to tear it down and build a new one. Some people would call that progress, but I think it’s kind of sad.”