University halts plans to build new facility

CHAMPAIGN – The University of Illinois has put a halt to plans for a new building for the Illinois Natural History Survey.

The facility was to be built in the UI's research park to house the survey's and the UI's biological collections and the survey's Center for Biodiversity.

The state provided $6.1 million for the project – the estimated cost was $12.7 million when the UI Board of Trustees approved the project in November 2004 – and the rest of the money was to come from the UI. But it will now provide only $1.1 million.

UI Chancellor Richard Herman said the cost for the new building, plus the cost of refurbishing the space the survey would vacate in the Natural Resources Building, was too high. The entire project also included buying the I Building in the research park for use by the survey, which was done.

"When we looked at the whole project, it just couldn't be brought in on budget," Herman said.

UI officials also found they had less need for the space in the Natural Resources Building than originally thought, because space will be available in Wohlers Hall when the business college builds its new classroom building, Herman said.

The survey has been trying to find more space for more than a decade.

"Every time we get really close, thinking it's actually going to happen, something like this happens and it just evaporates," said Chris Dietrich, assistant director of the Center for Biodiversity. "It hasn't been too good for staff morale here. There's just a general feeling we're such a low priority, not only for own organization, but also for the university.

"We felt like we were pretty close this time," he continued. "It was a real downer for most of us."

The bulk of the Natural History Survey's staff is already at the research park. But about 40 Center for Biodiversity staff and the biological and plant collections are still in the Natural Resources Building at Sixth Street and Peabody Drive.

The new building was to provide much-needed space for the collections and put all the survey's staff in the same general area. An architect produced a preliminary design, which was to go to the trustees at their January meeting before the project was halted.

Natural History Survey Chief David Thomas said the survey now doesn't have the money to build the planned facility. Survey officials are considering their options, including building a smaller building or renovating the Natural Resources Building.

The survey could also lose a portion of a $3 million donation from David and Jane Eades of Champaign. The money is to support research in orthoptera – an insect order that includes crickets, grasshoppers and locusts – but about $350,000 was to go for space devoted to orthoptera in the new building. Thomas said that money could be lost if the survey doesn't build a new building or if it doesn't include space for orthoptera.

The UI wants to transfer its biological collections to the survey, which already manages them, and it will contribute $1.1 million toward space for them. The UI's vertebrate collections are now in warehouses.

"We moved them in there with the understanding they were going to be housed, sooner rather than later, in our new building," Dietrich said. "A big concern on the part of some of the curators here is the collections moved into a temporary facility are not in ideal storage conditions. They are not being maintained the way they should be now."

Dietrich said the space in the Natural Resources Building wasn't designed for housing biological collections. Cabinets line hallways and rooms where it is difficult or impossible to control the temperature and humidity – necessary to keep pests from eating the specimens, particularly the plants.

"We just have to spend more time going through those cabinets on a regular basis checking them for pests and treating them," Dietrich said. "It takes more of our time and is not as good for the collections."

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