A campus springs to life

WEST HAVEN — 1.6 million square feet is a lot of space to fill. But for Michael Donoghue, it represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Since October, Donoghue, the vice president of planning and development for Yale’s West Campus, has been hard at work crafting the vision of what he says will shape the future of science and the arts at Yale.

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David Walker
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Though it has been over one and a half years since Yale purchased the 136-acre former Bayer HealthCare complex here in neighboring West Haven, plans for transforming this concrete jungle into a haven of academia are just beginning to bear fruit.

Indeed, the pace of development has picked up considerably within the past year. The Peabody Museum has already transplanted over 1.6 million artifacts to the site’s cavernous storage facilities, and a group of “pioneer” researchers has begun work within the site’s first scientific laboratory.

The row of concrete buildings at West Campus — not a skyline most Elis would recognize as in line with their neo-Gothic structures — exists a solid 7-mile, 12-minute commute away from Yale’s central campus. But as word spreads about the new space and its state-of-the-art equipment, administrators and faculty alike are beginning to realize its potential.

Donoghue, the former director of the Peabody, said this community input has been key to constructing a cohesive vision for West Campus.

“It’s really important that we get people talking about, thinking about and getting excited about the vision,” he said in an interview. “This is the really important groundwork that will make West Campus successful in the long run.”

A STRUCTURED VISION

At its most fundamental level, Yale’s vision for West Campus emphasizes equality between the arts and science. Whereas back in New Haven, facilities for the arts, sciences and medicine are physically blocks apart, on West Campus the disciplines will, in some cases, be merely floors apart.

Such proximity will foster collaboration in a way not currently possible — potentially changing Yale’s traditional department-centric philosophy into a more interdisciplinary one, Provost Peter Salovey said.

“There’s opportunity out here for collaboration and letting the departments mingle,” added Mark Francis, a senior architect in the School of Medicine’s Department of Facilities Construction & Renovation. “It’s a new frontier. We can take advantage of the low barriers.”

On the science side of the equation, five broader institutions will support three core facilities, which will be involved with work in RNAi screening, chemical screening and genomics, and will provide researchers both inside and outside Yale access to machine-intensive research services.

The first of the three — the Center for High Throughput Cell Biology — debuted July 1. CHTCB conducts screens and analysis of the human genome to identify genes that are associated with specific cell functions. The remaining two facilities, meanwhile, are still in the planning stages. Though plans may change, currently the institutes are slated to house work on chemical biology, cell biology, systems biology, cancer and microbial diversity, Donoghue said.

Together, the scientific cores and institutes will use 434,000 square feet of laboratory space — an amount comparable to the 426,000 square feet the arts will occupy, a reflection of the campus’ focus on equality between the disciplines.

Indeed, just as the vision for the sciences has a structured core, so too does the vision for the arts. The Peabody is currently moving parts of its collection onto West Campus, while the Yale University Art Gallery will follow suit later this semester.

Parallel in nature to the science core facilities, the arts will support two core facilities that will focus on conservation and digitization. (The term “arts” comprises the decorative and performing arts, as well as museum and library collections, Donoghue emphasized).

At the conservation facility, which is scheduled to open this summer, state-of-the-art technology will be used to restore and refurbish papers, books, objects and paintings, Roberta Pilette, head of preservation for the Yale University Library, said.

At the digitization facility, physical objects ranging from old manuscripts and government records to ancient African artifacts will be transferred onto digital media and archived, she said.

‘THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OCCUPATION’

Still, while it is one thing to make a place habitable, it is quite another to attract inhabitants.

For that reason, it is imperative that individuals from all across the University be involved in discussions about West Campus’ future, Donoghue said.

In an effort to get input from as many people as possible, Donoghue has become a master at shuttling back and forth between his office on 21 Sachem St. and the West Campus, meeting with faculty members one-on-one and touring groups around the sprawling site. Back in New Haven, meanwhile, he spends his time encouraging faculty members to venture down Interstate 95 for their departmental meetings.

Outreach of this kind is important, Donoghue emphasized, because getting people into the right mind set to move — or consider moving — to the West Campus is necessary if the vision is going to become a reality.

“No one wants to be the first person to move there,” he conceded, adding most people might find daunting the idea of working in relative isolation at a 1.6-million-square-foot campus.

But the pioneers of West Campus, as Donoghue affectionately terms them, are not “most people.” For the 16 researchers who comprise the Center for High Throughput Cell Biology, the opportunities West Campus presented were too compelling to pass up. In interviews, many of the researchers said they found the experience of being West Campus’ first full-time residents exciting — and a bit strange, too.

As one researcher, Adrian Poffenberger, put it, the initial experience was “sort of like living in a Stephen King novel.”

He explained that it was not so much being surrounded by empty space that made it creepy, but that the space felt as if it had been occupied just the day before.

Another researcher, Jason Ignatius, admitted that West Campus felt lonely at first, but that there was a certain “fun factor” to being one of the first people on site.

In the future, the physical act of moving more people onto West Campus will be done in waves, Donoghue said, though questions remain about what shape the waves will take.

Lately, as the economic downturn has slowed most development projects at Yale, discussion on the development plans for West Campus has become more deliberate. Whereas before the downturn, the University “might have jumped in with both feet” — hiring new researchers and renovating facilities more aggressively — the focus is now on planning every step more methodically, Donoghue said.

While the University has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to West Campus’ development — in fact, it made three or four offers to new researchers in the last few weeks — the pace of hiring will slow over the coming months, Salovey said.

But the fact remains that Yale has a substantial advantage when developing the campus because it faces no significant capital costs in doing so, administrators note.

A BROADER REACH

While at present West Campus development efforts currently focus on recruiting faculty from outside Yale and further involving the faculty at Yale, officials interviewed said they expect both Yale undergraduates and the surrounding community to eventually have a presence on site — in the realm of both the arts and the sciences.

“Undergraduates will have a great opportunity to do some very creative work,” Donoghue said. “I think there will be a considerable interest.”

In the distant future, students in relevant upper-level seminars will be able to access the browsable storage of the various arts collections. On the science side, Donoghue said, there will be research opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students, especially to take advantage of the campus’ cutting-edge technology. There will be also be unique opportunities for science majors interested in the arts to learn about the conservation process.

Eventually, undergraduates will be able to use West Campus’ resources for their senior projects, particularly those involving scientific research, art and theater, said Steve Girvin, the deputy provost for science and technology.

But the reach of West Campus will not be limited to central campus. In fact, plans to bring groups from the greater New Haven community to the campus are in the works, said Derek Briggs, the director of the Peabody. For instance, officials from the museum and the community are building upon an environmental education program that had been created by Bayer back when it occupied the site. Set to resume this spring, the program will bring local schoolchildren to West Campus’ nature trails and creek, said Jane Pickering, the deputy director of the Peabody.

“We are working with the West Haven, Orange and New Haven public schools on creating environmental programs that work with the actual environment,” she said. “We are working on signage for trails and inside space for classrooms.”

Still, officials acknowledged that, looking forward, transportation will be a key issue. Transit operations between central campus and West Campus will have to expand significantly for West Campus’ non-resident population to increase, Salovey said.

“It’s the only way to make the West Campus work,” he said.

But Donoghue said details such as these will come together as the process goes on. At the moment, planning for the West Campus remains in an exploratory stage; anyone, he said, can help shape its direction.

“Nothing is set in stone,” he added. “Even without doing anything — just discussing — we’re realizing the power of talking to one another.”

For Part Two, an in-depth look at West Campus’ pioneering scientists, see Wednesday’s News.

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