UA asks the state to pay to demolish historic church, some Quaker Square buildings

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So what’s that mean for the Grand Entrance? Why would it cost $13M to move into a new building? …And who’s going to pay for this stuff

by Chris Horne

There are at least, and some might think only, two interesting things about the list of capital improvement projects the University of Akron submitted November 11 to the State of Ohio in its anticipated request for funding.

1) Zero requests regarding the Grand Entrance appear on the list.

2) They’re asking the state to foot the bill for tearing down buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Specifically, they want to demolish the old St. Paul’s Episcopal, a historic church that served as UA’s Ballet Center and was put on the register in 1976. Also, four buildings—1,2,3 and 10—at Quaker Square, an Akron landmark the university purchased for $22.7 20151117_144803million in 2007 that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, would be demolished if the university’s $6.3M request is granted.

While that might be a shock and an affront to anyone interested in maintaining the city’s historic character and charm, that first item is no surprise. In era of underfunded higher education, there was little doubt the university could get the state to fund a “big driveway,” as one faculty senator put it. A reasonable person might then assume Scarborough and company knew that would never fly all along.

Yet, starting at a September 3 meeting of UA’s Faculty Senate, Scarborough has repeatedly responded to questions about the so-called Grand Entrance by saying it was part of a list “that one day represents a request to the state for money that you can only use for capital projects.”

In the same meeting, he assured senators the university would only ask for “money to take care of what we have,” instead of anything for a new building. On one hand, he included the Grand Entrance in the general we-have-to-ask-the-state-for-something logic but then excluded it from consideration for the list of requests without actually saying they wouldn’t pursue it without state funding.

Perhaps that’s because the hope is they can still build the Grand Entrance. After all, they have the land for it.

In October, speaking again to the Faculty Senate, Scarborough concluded an answer to a new question about the Grand Entrance with an unsolicited disclosure. “I will say this: The fact that we eliminated baseball does make the possibility of a potential grand entrance more, more viable,” he said.

If you go back to the original story The Devil Strip published online about the Grand Entrance, you’ll find this quote from Scarborough during his July 23 appearance on 92.3 The Fan: “We looked at whether we could do something with the RubberDucks to save baseball, and those very intelligent people looked at it and said, ‘No, we can’t make it work either.’ So when they said that, we just didn’t have any alternative…”

If you go to the Beacon Journal’s version of our story, you’ll see Jim Pfander, the then-GM of the RubberDucks, saying they never had that conversation with UA officials.

golf cartWhen Scarborough tells the story about The Grand Entrance now, he says he simply jotted down some notes while riding around in a golf cart on an early visit to campus, then handed it to Ted Curtis, the university’s VP of Capital Planning & Facilities. But the list evolved over the course of emails exchanged between Scarborough and Curtis. On June 19, the president sent a typed “Listing of Projects to be Funded by State Capital, Operating Funds, or Donor Gifts.” Of course, that list, alongside projects submitted for state funding like the demolition of the historic church at W. Market and Forge, includes the Grand Entrance. So, will it be paid for by operating funds or donor gifts?

That’s the ($8 Million) Plan, Stan

On that same “Listing of Projects” are some improvements to the Polsky Building—power washing, façade repair, etc.—and an unexplained note to “work with the City to create new ‘maker space’ on first floor.”

During the summer of 2014, the City of Akron received $2.5 million from the federal government to create the Bits and Atoms Innovation Center, “an acceleration/incubator hybrid” that will feed the maker community and provide about 65 jobs. The state is ponying up another $2 million and the Knight Foundation kicked in another $25,000 to help with the planning process.

Multiple sources say city officials want Bits and Atoms on the first floor of Polsky to help spur economic growth downtown, so they’ve been negotiating a building swap with the university. After most of the big details were ironed out, I’m told the university then asked for $13 million to accommodate their move to whatever facility the city surrendered in the deal, and then when the city balked, UA said it’d be $8 million instead.

Around the same time, I found this document, which lists dozens of facilities projects over the course of 15 pages, gives their estimated costs and notes whether each is eligible for state funding.

polsky

On page 2, there’s a listing for relocating “elements on first floor of Polsky” and collaborating with the city to create a “maker space.” The price tag for the former is $13.3 million. The cost of the maker space is set at $8.7 million. Assuming the university could get that minimal amount—$8 million—from either the cash-strapped city in addition to getting a new space in exchange, what would they do with it?

There are some other things on the list that aren’t eligible for state funding:

  • $250k for UA/Polytechnic logo on bridge over Route 8 at Buchtel Ave. and Carroll St.
  • Up to $1M for an exterior video display board (except Z-Fund is currently raising money for it)
  • Up to $300k for “LeBron James Interactive Exhibit” (mentioned in emails with LBJ Family Foundation as part of JAR renovations)
  • Up to $500k for a water fountain at the Student Union (or as little as $150k)
  • “Minimum” of $850k for building lighting (upwards of $2,334,000 for the “Wow” level)
  • $2.2M for 11 new arches around campus (varying span, material, etc.)
  • $3.96M for 300 lighted masonry piers with signs (create “Campus Perimeter I.D.”)
  • $8.275M for a Grand Entrance (includes baseball facility removal and track relocation)

Sowing Your Oats

It should be pointed out, as Dr. Scarborough has, that the university has to ask the state for money to keep the campus up, to renovate and repair and maintain its facilities. All the other universities are doing it. Though one might debate the cultural merits of specific demolitions, the facilities projects listings claim those moves would save the university more than $50.7 bfecb6de-fdb5-49cb-8cdf-22abb1de60ecmillion in deferred maintenance costs over an unnoted amount of time. That figure doesn’t include the four Quaker Square buildings in the request because there’s nothing about Quaker Square on the facilities projects listings.

The motivation for demolishing the historic buildings is bluntly “justified” this way in the request to the state: “Cost to repurpose structures would exceed the cost of demolition and construction of new facility.”

Asked to elaborate, university spokesman Wayne Hill responded by email, “The items related to Quaker Square were included in the second biennium (July 2018 – June 2020) as part of the university’s long-term capital planning to allow for full review and determination as to their feasibility. Quaker Station and the residential housing portion of the complex, including the silos and the tower, would remain. If we move forward with this process, we intend to engage an historical preservation consultant to help guide us.”

In fairness, every university is like a small city and there are thousands of plates to keep spinning all the time. Not to mention, there are levels of complexity added to every issue by multiple regulating agencies and entities. The inter-campus politics must be insane on top of everything else. No doubt, it’s a tough gig. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

However, there are two problems that continue to appear:

1) Concerns that what you see—or more accurately, what we’re told—isn’t what we’re going to get.

2) The academic mission of the university —that is, educating and graduating students—seems to be placing third among priorities behind financial stability and superficial ways to attract new blood.

For context, success coaches, the university’s primary effort to improve graduation rates, will only cost UA about $840,000, an amount that wouldn’t even afford the campus a “minimum” level of building lighting.

Then there’s this exchange at the end of Scarborough’s answer to the Faculty Senate in September about the Grand Entrance.

PRESIDENT SCARBOROUGH: “So, is the picture a little different than saying, ‘The President wants to build an $11 million entry into the University’? Is the picture a little different with actually real information?”

SENATOR SCOTTO: “Not that much different. I just wonder why you couldn’t tell us this upfront, and we still don’t know whether you’re going to build a big driveway or not.”

Exactly.

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