Groundbreaking for UI's $75M Classroom Instructional Facility set April 12

 

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URBANA — A visible corner of central campus that once housed popular clay tennis courts will soon be home to the newest classroom building at the University of Illinois.

A groundbreaking is scheduled for April 12 for a $75 million instructional building at the southeast corner of Wright Street and Springfield Avenue, just west of the Grainger Engineering Library.

With two dozen state-of-the-art classrooms, more than almost any campus building, the four-story building will be used for courses in engineering, math, statistics, computer science and related courses, all high-demand programs that are in need of more space, officials say.

The UI announced the "Classroom Instructional Facility" last fall when UI trustees approved a new public-private funding arrangement for that project and a $20 million feed mill on Race Street, south of Curtis Road.

Under that approach, buildings are designed, financed and built by private firms, and the university enters a rent-to-own arrangement.

A nonprofit entity is created that in turn contracts with a developer, construction contractor, architect and engineer, and uses the state's Illinois Finance Authority to issue bonds to pay for the project. The university doesn't directly contract for those services, but the project benefits from the tax-exempt financing, and the contractor assumes the risk for finishing the project on time, according to the UI.

The buildings are owned by the nonprofit entity, and the university rents space there — in this case for 30 years — with the rent covering the annual bond payments. After the bonds are paid off, the university takes ownership.

The UI says the primary advantage is that projects can be built much more quickly, shaving seven to 10 months off the timeline in the early stages. The design is done in collaboration with the developer.

The goal is to have the classroom building mostly completed by spring 2021 and fully in use by that fall, said Matthew Tomaszewski, associate provost for capital planning.

Two Chicago-based firms make up the development team: Vermilion Development, headed by former UI student trustee Dave Cocagne, and Campbell Coyle Real Estate. Vermilion also developed the office building at the corner of Lincoln and University avenues in Urbana, which is used by some UI units.

Provident Group, which has a nonprofit that works with universities across the country on similar projects, will build and own the facility for 30 years. Other partners are the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architecture/engineering firm and Pepper Construction.

Trustees in November approved ground leases and other documents required to develop, lease and manage the feed mill and classroom facility. The bond issue could be approved by trustees in May, Tomaszewski said.

The campus is contributing $9 million up front for the two projects, to reduce borrowing costs.

Preliminary utility work on the feed mill project could start by June, Tomaszewski said. When completed in 2020, it will replace the aging Feed Mill at Fourth Street and St. Mary's Road.

The new classroom building will be heavily used by the College of Engineering, but also by science- and technology-related departments in other colleges, including chemistry, math, statistics and information science.

"We are going to have folks from throughout campus taking advantage of these new innovative classroom spaces," said College of Engineering spokesman Bill Bell, noting that enrollment in the college and campuswide has grown substantially in the last decade.

The innovations include a Greek-style "classroom in the round," which is unusual for STEM courses, Tomaszewski said.

"You can get a large number of students in a space, and yet no one is more than four or five rows from the instructor at any one time," he said.

Classrooms will be more interactive, with furniture layouts designed for group learning and teamwork, the way engineers work, Tomaszewski said.

Another feature will allow students and professors to share screens, so if a student has an idea "it can be thrown onto the main screen for all to see," he said.

A distance-learning classroom that can connect remotely to students off-site will benefit UI engineering undergraduates in the City Scholars program, who do internships in Chicago while continuing to take classes, Bell said.

The Student Sustainability Committee is providing $250,000 toward a geothermal system to help heat and cool the building, reducing energy consumption and helping it earn LEED "gold" certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The site at Springfield and Wright has been an open space since 2009, but for more than a century before that it housed clay tennis courts, used first by the UI tennis team and later by the University of Illinois Tennis Club. At its peak, the club had more than 400 students and faculty members, many of whom mourned when the courts closed.

The tennis courts were once part of a UI athletic complex that also included Kenney Gym, built in 1890 by famed architect Nathan Ricker and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and the UI baseball field and track, later consumed by the Beckman Institute and north engineering campus.

Sitting at a busy intersection, the new building will create a visible "gateway" to the College of Engineering and the broader campus, Tomaszewski said.

"Now, we're going to have a facility that really stands out and makes an impression," he said.

A similar classroom facility is being studied for the south part of campus, though a site hasn't been chosen. It could be a standalone building or an addition to an existing one, Tomaszewski said.

The UI Library has proposed a classroom facility as part of its expansion, in conjunction with the College of Business.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).