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Amherst College in search of new site for science center

Rising costs and anticipated campus disruption have sent Amherst College officials back to the drawing board in search for a better site for a long-planned new science center.

In announcing the decision to the campus community in an email last week, President Biddy Martin said the college has not wavered on its commitment to build a top-notch facility for science within the initial time frame and budget. She said that the pivot in plans will not affect a projected completion date.

“By 2018, as planned, we will have opened a new science center that meets the research needs of our faculty while offering the best science education available to undergraduates anywhere,” Martin wrote in her letter.

College officials announced in October 2011 their intention to build a $200 million, four-story center between Keefe Campus Center and the Merrill Science Building. Plans called for much of the structure to be built into a hillside to blend into the college landscape. Construction was to take place in stages over as many as six years.

Since then, however, the demands of the site have led to a significant escalation in cost projections and the realization that it would disrupt faculty research and other campus life, said James Brassord, director of facilities and associate treasurer for the college.

“It became evident as we entered the final stages of design that those construction estimates, as validated by subcontractors, were understated,” he said.

Additionally, efforts to re-route utilities next to Merrill proved harmful to the sensitive science being performed in the building, making it clear how difficult the construction would be for the campus.

“That was a small project compared to the science center, so we could foresee serious disruptions,” Brassord said.

When the costs climbed to more than $250 million, officials scrapped the site and will instead look for a location that allows for a single construction phase.

The college will soon hire an architectural planner to assess the merits of two specific alternative sites and may explore others, Brassord said.

One site is on the east campus off East Drive between Barrett Hill and Merrill Science roads, where four 1960s-era dormitories are located. This scenario would involve demolishing Coolidge, Stone, Pond and Crossett dorms to make way for the new science center. Brassord said the college would first need to construct housing elsewhere on campus to replace the dorms, which currently accommodate 280 students.

The second site is located on the southeastern portion of campus in an open area south of Wieland and King halls. Brassord said this site is appealing because it is undeveloped.

The change in plans has sparked hope among those affiliated with the Little Red Schoolhouse, a preschool near the initial proposed site, that it could stay in its building after all. It had expected to have to leave at the end of the May.

Stacy Tobin, president of Little Red’s board, said she has been in contact with the college, but has not yet heard whether the school can stay. Until last week, the program, formally known as the Amherst Day School, was expected to continue its half-day program at a different site, Tobin said.

“Before we knew about the science building change we had planned to go on hiatus until we were able to find a new location that we could afford and that would meet our needs,” Tobin said.

College spokesperson Caroline Hanna, however, said that while a new site for the science center has not yet been officially designated, the most likely locations for the facility are in the east or southeast areas of campus, not far from the original site. As a result, the Amherst Day School cannot stay in the Little Red Schoolhouse building beyond May 31, she said in an email, since the same concerns about the safety of that area for a children’s program still apply. She said the four dormitories that will be demolished are in close proximity to the school building, meaning the area will be affected by noise, fumes, vibrations, the comings and goings of heavy machinery and dust.

“It was difficult to have to ask the Amherst Day School program to vacate the building,” she wrote, “but it is a request that makes sense, given the nature of the work that will be happening in close proximity to the Little Red Schoolhouse.”

The college has long paid for heat, electricity and water at the schoolhouse, built in 1937, and continued to provide around $20,000 to the school from an endowment established for the school.

While it searches for a better site and updates a new design, the college will make improvements to Merrill to allow for ongoing scientific research and teaching. The original design called for the eventual demolition of Merrill.

Once the science programs in Merrill move to the new center, the college will likely use the building as swing space while other campus projects are under construction.

The new building, expected to have 220,000 square feet of floor space, will house most of the school’s science disciplines, including the departments of astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics and psychology, and the neuroscience and biochemistry-biophysics programs.

The college began planning for the new center about eight years ago when officials determined that Merrill was approaching the end of its useful life.

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