UML unveils $266M reconstruction plan

03/31/2006
By From the Lowell Sun

By CHRISTOPHER SCOTT, Sun Staff
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- The University of Massachusetts Lowell today unveiled a $266 million reconstruction plan that it hopes will spark an era of technological innovation and place it on par with the historic role the city played in shaping the Industrial Revolution.

The blueprint calls for the renovation of dozens of buildings on its North, South and East campuses that will serve as the foundation for a visionary nanotechnology program. The upgrades will put UMass Lowell in a position to attract the high-tech talent and resources needed to become a dominant force in a new age of global manufacturing, said Chancellor William Hogan.

The goal, he said, is to be a world-class leader in the development of biotechnology and nanotechnology products that will re-establish the region and state as a high-tech manufacturing hub.

"This is not a flash-in-the-pan proposal," Hogan said. "It is our goal to produce something no one else does, and to do that we need very sophisticated laboratories and other facilities."

Hogan said he isn't talking about producing PCs and bulky mainframe computers that put Wang and Digital on the manufacturing map more than two decades ago.

These are products that could fight cancer and others that could fit on the head of a pin while defying the laws of physics with potentially revolutionary results, he said.

Hogan and other UMass Lowell officials showed a draft form of the construction proposal to Sun editors earlier this week. He said in the days ahead the plan will be shown to faculty, students, city and state politicians, as well as residents of neighborhoods abutting university property.

If Hogan, UMass Lowell's leader for 25 years, is successful in carrying out his vision, the university will borrow $133 million and ask the state to match the university "dollar for dollar."

Hogan will ask the university's Board of Trustees to approve the borrowing request Aug. 16.

Even if the university is unsuccessful on Beacon Hill, it still hopes to borrow $133 million to give the 45-acre campus a much-needed facelift.

Many university buildings are more than 100 years old, and many others date back to the mid-1940s. The average age of a UMass Lowell building exceeds 50 years, Hogan said.

"The facilities were designed and constructed for a very different type of educational environment," said Frederick P. Sperounis, vice chancellor for university relations and development. "Our buildings are hardly equipped to help us accomplish what we've set out to do."

The project, if approved, will be overseen by Diana Prideaux-Brune, vice chancellor for facilities. Prideaux-Brune has a strong resume when it comes to building. Before joining the university, she worked for the city and oversaw construction of the Tsongas Arena and LeLacheur Park.

"This certainly is a very aggressive plan," said Prideaux-Brune. "But what's different about it is we're not constructing new space -- we're making better use of the space we have."

The university, Hogan and Sperounis said, has no choice.

New York, Texas and California have already appropriated millions to reserve their spots in the emerging fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology and green chemistry.

Competition from overseas is also stiffening.

"Germany is particularly fierce," said Sperounis.

If UMass trustees approve the plan in August, Prideaux-Brune hopes construction can begin within days.

With the matching state appropriation, the project would be completed around 2010.

Virtually no buildings -- they comprise nearly 2.8 million square feet in total -- will remain untouched. Every project will include elements of energy efficiency and renewable materials.

A key ingredient to each building project will be the creation of "inviting work spaces, effective instructional spaces and common spaces for meeting, collaboration and socializing."

Universal handicapped accessibility and the creation of more open space are also important parts of the plan.

"The bottom line is we're bringing the campus into the 21st century," said Prideaux-Brune.

Simultaneously, the university will begin admitting more students. The university currently enrolls nearly 11,000 students in undergraduate and graduate disciplines. It plans to admit 20 percent more students, thanks primarily to better use of its space.

Prideaux-Brune said the university isn't relying on higher tuition rates or student fees to fund the project.

"We don't think we need to do that," she said. "Under our operating budget we can handle the debt service."

UMass Lowell officials are scheduled to brief the city's Statehouse delegation Monday afternoon. So far, the reaction has been positive.

Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, a leader on the Senate Task Force on Public Higher Education, predicted the university's request for matching funds will be warmly received.

"Whenever you talk about a 'match' it's more likely to happen," said Panagiotakos. "Plus, it's been about 11 years since there's been such an appropriation."

Like Panagiotakos, Rep. Kevin Murphy, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, is supportive of the plan, saying the university is "doing a commendable job trying to stay ahead of the innovation curve."

But Murphy said fellow representatives are concerned about a proposed $400 million public college and university capital-improvement bill.

"I'm getting a lot of questions and pressure on that pricetag," he said. "Now they're asking for $133 million for one campus. That's a lot of money."

Panagiotakos and Murphy commended Hogan for developing a new niche for the university.

"He's way ahead of other presidents and chancellors," said Panagiotakos.

UMass President Jack Wilson was unavailable for comment. But his spokesman, Bill Wright, said UMass Lowell officials should be applauded for their efforts to modernize its facilities for students and faculty.