Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2017
As UMass Boston struggles to fix its overwhelming budget troubles, one especially complex challenge has loomed large: a massive, underground garage in urgent need of costly repair.
On Wednesday, interim chancellor Barry Mills said he has found a way to fix the garage for $92 million — dramatically less than the previous estimates of $150 million to $260 million.
The new, lower cost will alleviate overall pressure on the budget and likely allow the university to use proceeds from the future sale of the Bayside Expo Center site for academic pursuits and new projects.
“It just takes a huge weight off this campus,” Mills said in an interview Wednesday morning in his office, looking out over the desolate concrete plaza that forms the roof of part of the garage.
The cost of the garage project is just one piece of the university’s massive budget problem but has come to illustrate the dynamics that plague the University of Massachusetts Boston. School officials have been left to pay for problems that began decades ago — but a November audit blamed recent financial mismanagement for making matters worse.
Mills and his new team of administrators are now trying to fix problems after the departure of longtime chancellor J. Keith Motley last spring.
The university, which serves many low-income, first-generation, and minority students, has already instituted many budget cuts during Mills’s first year — everything from reducing the number of classes to restricting the use of copy machines to a recent round of layoffs that shook the campus.
The subterranean garage was built along with the rest of the campus in the 1970s, part of a construction project that sent two state senators to jail in a corruption scandal.
The garage forms the foundation for most campus buildings but has been closed for more than a decade, forcing the university to bus students and professors to campus from remote parking lots.
The 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.
Over the years, disagreement over who should pay for the project has stalled it and created tension between the central University of Massachusetts office and the campus. In the meantime, the delays have only made it more costly and dangerous.
There is still uncertainty over who will pay for this project. The university has begun to spend the $78 million the state pledged last spring. Mills said he still believes the state should also pay for the rest of the project, but he said the cheaper price tag now allows the university to finance the project itself if it must.
“If the state wanted to, they could solve this entire problem with another small injection of money and fix the problem forever,” Mills said.
The original plan to fix the garage, which evolved during the decade when Motley was chancellor, would have cost at least $150 million and likely as much as $260 million. Last fall, Mills told the campus at a public forum that he still had no idea how to tackle the garage project.
But in December Mills assembled a team of experts and now says they have found a way to complete the project for as little as $92 million.
Real estate experts from the firm Leggat McCall presented color-coded diagrams that show their new plans side by side with the old idea.
As before, the plan involves tearing down the school’s science center and garage beneath it. But instead of replacing it with a raised lawn and ornate raised entrances to the existing buildings, the science center would be replaced with a parking lot.
The plan will keep the catwalks that connect all the main campus buildings and will keep the outdoor walkways as well by reinforcing the narrow strip of garage underneath them.
Meanwhile, the sections of underground garage beneath two other academic buildings, Wheatley and McCormack, would be repaired for use.
All that new parking, about 1,200 spaces, would generate revenue to help pay for this project, the consultants said.
“I’m not saying this is easy,” Mills said. “But it is quite manageable.”
The new plan would both save money and help ease the perennial parking issue on campus, Mills said. UMass Boston is a university of mainly commuters who juggle jobs and school. Students now pay $6 per day to park on the site of the former Bayside Expo Center and take a shuttle to campus, but the university recently announced plans to sell the Bayside land.
One thorny side effect of removing the science center will be figuring out where to relocate the programs that operate out of that building, notably the popular and successful nursing and computer science programs.
Mills said there is a plan to find space for those programs elsewhere on campus. It will cost $39 million to relocate them, he said, a cost figured into his $92 million estimate.
That figure assumes that the campus will generate $48 million from charging parking fees for the new garages under Wheatley and McCormack and above ground on the site of the science center. That uses an assumption of $2,000 of revenue per space per year, the consultants from Leggat McCall said.
Mills estimates it will be about 18 months before the project will start and another 18 months or two years before it is complete.
One casualty of the plan will be the campus swimming pool, though Mills said the school could raise money to build one.
The university could also eventually build a new academic building where the science center now sits if it has money in the future to do so, he said.
On Wednesday morning, Mills bounced in his chair with excitement as he described the new plan.
“It goes from being this existential project that would make people afraid to think about this university into the future to just a complicated building project,” he said.
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