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03.18.2009
Milstein in the Balance
Cornell split in bitter battle over OMA Arch School

Having just won final approval from Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board, OMA-designed Milstein Hall, the planned expansion of Cornell’s College of Art, Architecture, and Planning (AAP), has hit another roadblock, along with most other construction projects on campus. Due to university-wide financial constraints, President David Skorton has put all university building projects under review. In this context, a group of professors and alumni have called for Milstein to be shelved, while AAP faculty, students, and alumni are lobbying for its survival. Meanwhile, the school is facing a deadline from the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB) to upgrade its facilities.

“We’re not calling it a freeze. Most projects on campus are being evaluated, including Milstein,” said Tommy Bruce, vice-president for university communications. “Projects must meet two criteria. They must be essential to the mission of the university, and they must have all funds aligned.” Deans and department heads have been asked to submit detailed reports demonstrating how each project meets these criteria. Decisions are expected at the beginning of April.

In a January 30 letter to The Cornell Daily Sun, 25 faculty members and alumni questioned the project, given the estimated 27 percent decline in the university’s endowment. “The financial crisis faced by our university renders the extraordinary expense of the chosen design (circa $60 million, before it has even gone to bid) very difficult to justify,” they wrote. “The extravagant expense of Milstein threatens more pressing financial needs for core functions of research and teaching, contributes to a greater financial burden on students and their families from projected tuition increases, and threatens more employee layoffs.” In addition to the cost of the project, the letter questioned its aesthetics and sustainability, as well as its high-profile design team.

On February 11, one of the signatories of the letter introduced a resolution to include Milstein in the university-wide “construction pause.” The resolution was struck down, as the administration already considered the project on hold.

AAP students and faculty, however, defended the necessity for the project’s going forward. Dean Kent Kleinman argued that the project is essential for the school to maintain its accreditation. A spokesperson for NAAB confirmed the dean’s claim. “We have not gotten a satisfactory response from them in regards to their facilities, to date,” said Cassandra Pair, an accreditation manager at NAAB. “This is something we can no longer ignore.”

Though the project appears to meet Bruce’s criteria of being “essential to the mission” of the school, the second measure, having “all funds aligned,” is more complicated. Dean Kleinman, who declined to be interviewed for this article due to the pending decision, estimated the project will cost $52 million, and told The Cornell Chronicle that AAP has raised nearly $30 million for the project and plans to borrow $12 million more, leaving the university to pick up the remaining $10 million (or $18 million, depending on which total cost estimate is used).

OMA is reticent about the situation. “All we can do is explain our intentions,” said Shohei Shigematsu, director of OMA’s New York office. Still, they acknowledge the present climate is difficult for their design. “Every project begins in a particular moment. If we started the project today, the design would turn out differently,” he said. “It’s an issue of bad timing, but the issue is not as black-and-white as some people seem to think.”

Alan G. Brake