Woodbridge Hall memo: A decade’s work derailed

Plans for the two new residential colleges were a decade in the making, but it took just a few months to throw them off track.

Fewer than nine months after the Yale Corporation formally approved the University’s largest expansion since co-education, the project has been put on hold indefinitely. The colleges were planned during boom years, when the timing seemed propitious. But the global financial meltdown foiled those plans, and they won’t be back on track until market conditions improve.

No caption.
No caption.

It was a sudden turnaround no one expected.

“If anyone had said that in September, you would have thought they were out of their mind,” Deputy Provost for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs Lloyd Suttle said Tuesday. “This is an extraordinary time we’re living though with this economic downturn. We had everything all planned, but the world changed last fall.”

Indeed, everything really was planned. Just when the University was blessed with unprecedented wealth, the new colleges emerged as the linchpin of a complex web of campus development projects. They were all set to align in 2013, when the first students were scheduled to move into the colleges on Prospect Street.

Projects sprouted up in peculiar places on campus — a new Yale University Health Services facility behind the Grove Street Cemetery, for example — but they were all designed with an eye toward the new colleges. Landscape designs for the new social sciences building on Prospect Street created axes and walkways that would align the building with the site of the colleges across the street.

Both of these projects were timed for completion before 2013, so that students moving into the colleges would have a neighborhood in place. University planners had orchestrated a chain reaction of construction projects and space swaps that would fall into place with the opening of the new colleges.

As early as April 2000, a campus planning report showed a map of campus with existing buildings on the site torn down and the colleges in their place. That report, produced by the planning firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners, came about in large part because Yale had the money to think big.

Between 1998 and 2008, the University’s endowment more than tripled, rising from $6.6 billion to a peak of $22.9 billion. For the first time in Richard Levin’s presidency, the University was poised to embark on a project he had envisioned for years.

More than a decade ago, as Levin prioritized his long-range goals, expanding Yale’s presence overseas and its science offerings on campus topped the list. But Levin had already begun thinking about adding two new colleges.

When he took office in 1993, he inherited a budget deficit. His first five years were devoted to renewing “crumbling” campus facilities and improving Yale’s relationship with New Haven.

With that accomplished, and with the University’s wealth mounting, the idea of expanding inched closer to reality. Levin began raising the idea with alumni at least five years ago.

In February 2006, Levin convened two committees of students and faculty members to examine the question of expansion.

There was no talk in those committee meetings of possible delays to the project. The economy looked good, Yale was rich, and not even a $600 million price tag deterred Yale officials.

“When we finished our work, just about a year ago, there was no hint whatsoever that there was any possibility that we would be in the situation we’re in now,” said William Sledge, the former master of Calhoun College who chaired one of the two committees.

But the committees were more concerned with the location and features of the colleges than with the project’s timeline.

“Our assignment wasn’t to imagine when these colleges might be built,” said Associate Dean of Yale College Penelope Laurans, who served as the vice-chair of both committees. “It was to imagine the colleges.”

And though the timing of the colleges is now in question, the vision of those committees remains.

Part of the impetus for delaying the colleges, after all, is a desire to avoid building on the cheap. Levin has said in recent interviews that he wants to avoid the pitfalls of Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, which were built on shoestring budgets.

The selection of Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, an architect known for designing sprawling summer estates, was surely a sign that Yale would spare no expense on the project. Stern, for his part, said in an interview Tuesday that he is disappointed in the delays but hopeful that the project will continue.

“I wish we were richer,” Stern said, “but to be an architect, you have to be an optimist.”

Provost Peter Salovey likes to call Levin an optimist, too. But Yale’s sanguine president, on the wake of a meeting with the Yale Corporation where the group reviewed pessimistic financial scenarios, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he had no choice but to delay the new colleges until funding can be secured.

“The colleges will not open in 2013,” Levin said, “but I can’t say when they will open, either.”

Zeynep Pamuk contributed reporting.

Comments

  • TD Parent

    "Landscape designs for the new social sciences building on Prospect Street created axes and walkways that would align the building with the site of the colleges across the street."

    Were they also planning to put in new crosswalks? Or do they think students should continue to get hit by cars?