The most gargantuan challenge facing UMass Boston is one you can’t see.
As the campus struggles to balance its budget, complete long-delayed construction projects, and find a new chancellor, it has yet to solve the most complicated, expensive, and risky problem on campus: fixing a dangerously unstable parking garage that sits beneath many buildings and the university’s central plaza.
The subterranean garage was built along with the rest of the campus in the 1970s, part of a misbegotten construction project that sent two state senators to jail in a corruption scandal.
Its concrete is crumbling, sometimes falling onto cars and natural gas lines. The structure is so deteriorated that a 2015 engineering report found it unsafe for firetrucks to drive onto the plaza for fear they might fall through.
In many ways, the dilemma of the underground garage illustrates the dynamics that plague the University of Massachusetts Boston and have led to its current budget troubles.
Disagreement over who should pay for the project has created tension between the central UMass office and the campus. In the meantime, the delays have only made it more costly and dangerous.
The project to demolish the substructure as well as several attached buildings is expected to cost at least $150 million and possibly as much as $260 million, according to varying estimates. The demolition is expected to take 26 to 30 months.
Campus officials insist the state should pay, but the central UMass office has told them to be prepared to foot the entire bill.
As the dispute festered, UMass Boston has, over the past decade, prioritized other, more visible building projects, like a new science center, academic building, and an aboveground parking garage.
The university is in the midst of one key precursor to the garage project, relocating campus utilities that run through it. That project was delayed for nearly a year — and cost at least $50 million more than expected — because of asbestos found in the soil where the utilities are going to be relocated.
UMass trustee Victor Woolridge said the campus is simply following its plan for which projects to pursue and in what order.
“If you want to call it delay, that’s what it is,” said Woolridge, who served until this year as board chairman. “There are lots of pieces that need to move around before you can begin working on this thing.”
Woolridge called the underground garage project the “Big Dig” of UMass Boston, a reference to the behemoth project to bury Boston’s Central Artery expressway. That project also ran into major delays and was, in the end, hugely more expensive than planned.
Woolridge noted that the garage project is overseen by the state entity known as DCAMM — the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance — not the campus, so it should not be UMass’s responsibility.
“If DCAMM isn’t paying for it, where does the money come from?” he said.
Over the past year, the UMass central office has leaned harder on the Boston campus administration to form a plan to pay for the project itself.
Tensions on the issue reached a high point last August, according to e-mails from top UMass Boston officials obtained by the Globe through a public records request.
After months of back and forth between administrators, UMass President Martin T. Meehan sent a stern letter to UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley asking for a plan.
“Since the state has not currently committed funds to this project, we need your campus to be prepared to initiate and fund the work necessary to address this significant campus infrastructure and safety issue,” Meehan wrote to Motley.
Campus leaders were offended by the directive. Ellen O’Connor, then the campus finance chief, said in one of several e-mails to other UMass Boston officials that the central office had created an uncomfortable “you versus us” situation.
“[The system office] was adamant that ‘there is no money’ from the university to help with the substructure,” O’Connor wrote. “I responded very directly that I did not believe that there was no money and, when something very bad happens, money will be found.”
O’Connor found Meehan’s demand infuriating, according to her e-mail.
“I explained that this letter as I read it was not a position of support for UMass Boston for our horrible and well documented and costly substructure problems by the system office and that they were covering themselves in the event of a harm here,” O’Connor wrote.
The campus’s assertion that the state should pay is based in part on an earlier promise from the state. In 2011, the commissioner of DCAMM said at a forum at UMass Boston, “The substructure and science center demolition, we’ll take responsibility for that.”
But now, under a new commissioner, DCAMM is sounding more noncommittal. The agency has agreed to pay for a half-million-dollar study of the garage demolition but is still in discussions with UMass about the project beyond that, according to a DCAMM spokesman.
Meanwhile, the garage continues to crumble. Most of the space has been fenced off, leaving a labyrinth of walkways made safer by metal and netting on the ceiling to keep concrete from falling. In many places concrete is worn away to expose rebar. Water drips into wide puddles on the floor.
Last July a door frame collapsed on a loading dock, according to a log of incidents the campus keeps. A wall of bricks that weighs 7,000 pounds had to be secured because it was in danger of falling.
In 2010, a 385-pound piece of concrete crashed to the ground. More than 800 screw jacks temporarily prop up utility pipes that snake through the garage ceiling. Tufts of pipe insulation hang overhead.
The two main campus buildings that sit atop the garage — McCormack Hall and Wheatley Hall — have been fortified as part of an “interim stabilization project” but concrete slabs on the upper and lower levels of the garage beneath them continue to deteriorate, according to information that the campus gave the university system office in August.
The garage demolition project is also supposed to include demolition of the pool building and the science building, which has largely been replaced by the new Integrated Sciences Complex that opened in 2015, although some have proposed repurposing the old science building. An e-mail from campus officials in January said the soonest the garage demolition might begin is January 2019.
A spokesman for UMass Boston declined to make campus officials including Deputy Chancellor Barry Mills, who oversees daily campus operations, available for interviews about this project. Instead, in a statement, he said the school has spent about $40 million on the interim stabilization measures.
The campus is making “substantial progress” on the utility relocation project that will enable work to begin to remove the garages, said the spokesman, DeWayne Lehman.
“We look forward to fully remedying this legacy construction issue, in partnership with the state, by taking down the garage and installing a central, green campus quad,” he said.
UMass Board Chairman Rob Manning declined comment for this story.
Meanwhile, e-mails show that over the past year campus administrators were concerned about presenting other new projects to the board of trustees, including a new aboveground garage, because they knew the board was concerned about the underground garage.
“There is . . . pushback on the [aboveground garage] project as ‘not necessary’ and an argument that a better use of the money is to make us pay for the [underground garage] project,” O’Connor wrote in an e-mail on Aug. 26, 2016.
The campus felt the system office was pushing “fear and panic” about life-safety issues while refusing to help pay for the underground garage, O’Connor wrote in another e-mail.
Woolridge is also the new chairman of the UMass Building Authority, an entity that oversees many UMass building projects but not the underground garage project directly.
On Friday he said he was still digging through engineering studies of the substructure, trying to wrap his head around what the project will entail. But to understand the campus’s problems, Woolridge will have to look back nearly 40 years.
A Globe article from 1978, just four years after the campus was built, reported that the school already had found construction defects that cost at least $3 million to repair.
Concrete walls, floors, and ceilings leaked, and the campus electrical and ventilation systems did not work properly. Three sections of the library roof were warped and rain leaked in. Four decades later, the garage predicament seems a throwback to the campus’ unsavory creation story.
“Who wants to spend 100 million or plus dollars to correct, really, something that should have been done right the first time,” Woolridge said.