Fine Arts, for a price

By Diego Ruiz

The first stage of construction that will expand the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center by 50 percent, scheduled to begin in January 2011, is expected to cost at least $7 million more than previously estimated.According to treasurer David Wheaton, phase one of the renovation is now expected to cost around $39 million, as opposed to the $32 million amount currently projected on the Step Forward capital campaign web site. This estimate is also out of line with the total cost of $70 million that the administration predicted last summer.

According to Wheaton, the increase in cost is due to two factors: the additional expense of renovating the Facilities department, and the inflation of construction costs.

The cost of phase one of construction, which includes the music building, the “center core,” a new Art History department, and Facilities, has increased by almost 25 percent over the past few years, with Macalester spending $5 million in cash reserves and taking on more debt to make up the difference.

When the College came up with a $65 million estimate during initial planning for the renovation in 2006, they only considered the costs of renovating the music, art, and theater department. After deciding to do the construction in phases, with the music building first, planners realized they had missed something; Facilities, in the basement of the building slated for renovation, would also have to be redone.

“They’ve had inadequate space for a long time, it’s time to change that.” Wheaton said.

Factoring in the additional costs of renovating of the Facilities department will add $5 million to the project budget. It will be paid for with Macalester’s cash reserves, Wheaton said.

Mark Dickinson, the director of Facilities Services, is enthusiastic about the renovation, and said he is confident it will serve his department’s needs. After the 18 months of construction, the new department will have 6,000 extra square feet of space. The renovation and reconstruction will also remove some of the inconvenient quirks of the department’s current space in the basement of the music building.

“I’ve got the blower for the organ in my office closet, so anytime someone plays the organ, it’s 70 decibels in my office,” Dickinson said.

He has no qualms about Facilities being put back into the basement with the renovation. “This is a good, efficient, effective option for the college,” said Dickinson.

He noted that building a separate building for Facilities would take up valuable space on a small campus and cost $3 million to $5 million more than the current plan.

The other source for rising costs of the project is local construction inflation, which is highly variable year-to-year and therefore difficult to predict. Construction costs can stay the same during a year, or rise as much as 8 percent.

“Unfortunately, [the fluctuation] almost never causes a building to get cheaper,” Wheaton said.

The project’s second phase, which will both renovate and add to the art and theater buildings, is expected to cost more than the first.

Although gifts have financed an increasing proportion of new campus buildings, increased construction costs still generally mean increased debt. The phase one budget plans for $24 million of the project to be paid for through gifts. Wheaton estimated that the college would borrow $10 million to $12 million to make up the difference.

This will add to $75 million in debt that the college already has from previous construction projects as far back as the Campus Center. In the last budget, debt servicing accounted for $5 million, or 7 percent of Macalester’s $90 million operating budget.

Wheaton said Macalester is still borrowing a “modest amount,” for the Janet Wallace project, especially compared to peer institutions. “Some schools have borrowed so much that they can’t borrow any more,” Wheaton said.

Crews will break ground on phase one of the Janet Wallace renovation on either January 1 or June 1 of 2011. Department heads and administrators have expressed a desire for the earlier start date, but construction will not start until $18 million in gifts has been raised for the project.

Part of the reason that administrators are hoping for the earlier date is to take advantage of a period of lower demand for construction, due to the recession. Starting later, when there’s a higher chance that broader economic recovery will increase the demand for construction, might cause construction costs to keep rising.