Critical Mass; UMass Infrastructure Needs Repairs, Officials Say

Crumbling concrete, crater-like potholes, and falling debris have officials at the University of Massachusetts at Boston searching for $50 million to overhaul the Columbia Point campus's parking garage. The two-story structure serves as the foundation for five of the seven buildings on the UMass-Boston campus and must be refurbished in the next 10 years to avoid the risk of structural failure, according to university officials. Citing the continual deterioration of the structure, officials are renewing efforts to win funding for the project.

"We are in receipt of reports from structural engineers that advise us that unless substantial repairs are made, we are heading to structural failure," said Ellen O'Connor, vice chancellor for administration and finance at UMass-Boston.

O'Connor stressed that the parking structure and the buildings it supports are currently safe, and that the university is actively monitoring the situation.

"Before that [structural failure] would happen, the monitoring that's going on would trigger safety measures," said O'Connor.

In the garage, conditions are "deplorable," according to one university police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity

Pointing out exposed wires, crumbling ceilings, poor lighting, and large potholes, the employee stated, "I don't feel safe down here a lot of the time."

Reports of deterioration began in the late 1980s, and in 1989, temporary repairs were put in place and continued being made through the 1990s, according to O'Connor.

Throughout the garage, wood and metal beams serve as additional support, netting is spread across large sections of the ceiling to catch falling debris, and portions of the garage are cordoned off with barriers.

"The problem is that the deterioration is now happening faster than the solutions can be put into place," said O'Connor.

Overhauling the parking structure is a top priority, O'Connor said, one that has far-reaching implications for all of UMass-Boston.

"There is broad support to make the infrastructure repair our top priority because enrollment management people know that it's very difficult to attract students when their first impression is potholes and debris," said O'Connor.

The garage stands in stark contrast to UMass-Boston's new $75 million campus center.

"When we opened the campus center last year, we said that this is a first-class facility that our students deserve, and it highlights that other facilities need to be first class," Ed Hayward, UMass-Boston spokesman.

The overhaul project would cost approximately $50 million and take some three years to complete, according to O'Connor, and the university is seeking direction from the Legislature on how to handle the project's financing.

"What we're trying to figure out is how we could come up with some portion of the money needed," said O'Connor. "What we're absolutely saying is that we don't have the financial wherewithal to foot the bill for this ourselves."

The push for funding the rehaul comes on the heels of a report by the Senate Task Force on Public Higher Education that found that Massachusetts lags far behind the rest of the country in funding higher education. According to the report, the Commonwealth ranks 49th in state spending on higher education per $1,000 of state income. Regarding capital investment in the UMass system, the state spends $689 per student, compared to $1,291 per student at "peer" systems.

Problems with the infrastructure of the parking garage stem from the way in which the campus was constructed in 1971, according to O'Connor.

"There were serious, serious inadequacies in the building of this university, and some of the problems stem from that," said O'Connor.

Specifically, the University points to the quality of the materials and the practices used in the construction process.

Rebar is supposed to be set three to five inches into the concrete, according to O'Connor, who said that in the parking garage it's only one and one-half inches deep. Additionally, she said, the concrete is deteriorating faster than it should be.

The UMass-Boston project was at the center of a scandal in the 1970s when two state senators were jailed for accepting bribes from contractors in order to alter their report on the project. A subsequent report produced by a commission examining state construction practices found that at the time, "shoddy work and debased standards are the norm."

Walker Parking Consultants assessed the state of the garage, and a report was produced in 2003, and then revised in August 2004. The 2004 report stated, "Based on our limited reevaluation, we see the increasing demand and recommend that UMass pursue a comprehensive rehabilitation program on the structure while salvagability exists."