When a group of administrators, students and faculty first convened last winter to assess the possible impact of building two new residential colleges, there were plenty of issues on which they did not agree. But as far as the location of the proposed colleges was concerned, committee members shared a common sentiment.
“The doubters were many,” they recalled in their long-awaited report, released Monday. “Why, it was asked, did the colleges have to be located there?”
The answer, according to former and current University officials, is straightforward: The site in question, behind the Grove Street Cemetery along Prospect Street, was the space closest to central campus that could accommodate two full residential colleges, which administrators said had to be built together for for the sake of cost and efficiency.
For students, however, that explanation does not appear to be sufficient.
With the Yale Corporation two days away from voting to approve continued planning for the expansion of the undergraduate enrollment by more than 10 percent and University President Richard Levin having professed his support for expansion, the issue of the new colleges’ proposed location remains the decisive factor in many students’ judgments about the wisdom of moving ahead with the construction.
Even after considering the committees’ wide-ranging suggestions for making the Prospect Street site seem less isolated, many students remain fiercely opposed to putting up two new colleges there. And they show little sign of changing their minds.
“The life of a Yale student can easily get stressful and emotionally draining,” Wonjae Lee ’10 said. “Living next to a cemetery wouldn’t really help the situation.”
Lee — who said he was worried students in the new colleges would feel cut off from the rest of campus — was not alone in his concern. In a poll conducted by the News earlier this month, more than 60 percent of students said they were dissatisfied with the site in question. And in a questionnaire circulated by the two committees in November, 70 percent of respondents said they opposed the proposed colleges’ location.
But according to current and former Yale officials involved in planning for the expansion, the University had little choice but to plan for the colleges on the Prospect Street site.
As much as students might complain, these officials said, there is simply no other viable option.
“This was felt to be the site that worked the best,” University Planner Laura Cruickshank said. “Two colleges take up a lot of space.”
The colleges, Levin said in a statement endorsing the expansion Monday, would each take up 235,000 square feet, about 10 percent less than Yale’s largest residential college, Silliman College, which takes up most of an entire city block.
While students at several open forums on expansion held in residential colleges last fall all but begged administrators to reconsider the location for the proposed colleges, the Prospect Street site had long been set aside for the colleges.
Their concerns were strong enough that they at least inspired doubts in the minds of members of the committee charged with examining the expansion’s effects on student life. At several points over the course of the fall, various members raised doubts about whether other sites might work better, said former Calhoun College Master William Sledge, the chair of the committee.
Indeed, the report released Monday revealed in a footnote that the committees did scrutinize at least three other sites — the Hall of Graduate Studies, Swing Space and the Lot 51 parking area behind the School of Music, just east of Cross Campus.
But none proved feasible. The site of Swing Space, said former University Planner Pamela Delphenich, could only fit one college, not two, and the building itself could be more effectively converted into graduate housing than into a residential college.
And HGS — which is in need of extensive renovation but has historic value — could only be retrofitted into one college, Cruickshank said.
Comandeering HGS for undergraduates also would likely inspire a public-relations brouhaha among graduate students, some of whom already complain about being second-class citizens at a school where the undergraduate residences are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations while some graduate students live in the sorrowful confines of Helen Hadley Hall.
As might be expected, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler was not a fan of the HGS idea.
“Many ideas come forward in thinking about new ventures,” Butler said. “This,” he added, “was not one of the good ones.”
Of most interest to committee members, it seems, was the Lot 51 space, a large parking lot behind Hendrie Hall that one former senior University official described as the most prized development site on the whole of the Yale campus.
But that site was not quite big enough. It could fit two three-year residential colleges, officials said, but not two colleges of the size Levin has described and in the mold of the existing 12 colleges. Erecting colleges with hi-rise towers is out of the question, according to the former senior University official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity?.
The other problem with Lot 51, officials said, is that the site is encumbered by a number of other buildings that could pose problems — several are new or newly renovated, like the 12 year-old Joseph Slifka Center, the building for the Yale University Press and others, like Hendrie Hall, are historic.
“It’s just not feasible,” Deputy Provost for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs Lloyd Suttle said.
What is feasible, however — at least according to administrators — is the Prospect Street site, and University planners have known as much for close to a decade now. It was first identified as the possible site of new colleges as early as 2000, when the University released its 185-page Framework for Campus Planning, produced by the New York firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners.
“It was like, ‘If it’s going to happen, then this is where it makes sense,’ ” the former senior University official said of the Framework’s treatment of possible new colleges.
The biggest advantage of the Prospect Street site was its size, officials said. By 2006, when the city of New Haven ceded three streets in the area to Yale in return for $10 million in University-sponsored infrastructure improvements, the University had finally assembled a plot large enough for two colleges.
The primary reason for wanting to build the two colleges together has to do with money, according to former and current Yale officials.
“The primary reason is one of efficiency and unnecessary cost avoidance,” Deputy Provost Charles Long said. “It has proved very valuable to have colleges share certain facilities, especially kitchen and food-preparation areas, where labor costs are disproportionately high for small facilities.”
And so the Prospect Street site was the clear choice for the colleges. It also had the benefit of contributing to another University goal: helping bridge the gap between the “day campus” of Science Hill and the rest of central campus.
Indeed, despite student qualms about the site, administrators told the two committees it was not up for negotiation.
Levin said Monday that he plans to ask the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, to direct the Provost’s Office to prepare a preliminary capital budget and operating budget for the new colleges. The Prospect Street site will be the only one his office will examine, Provost Andrew Hamilton said.
Still, committee members admit there is no shortage of doubt about the site.
“It’s hard to imagine it,” one senior University official, said. “You walk that block — it’s pretty unwelcoming.”
But the report also cited a number of redeeming qualities in the Prospect Street location. For one, it is large enough to accommodate a much-discussed “third building,” which could house a lecture hall, rehearsal space and offices for student organizations and is seen as a significant means of luring more students to Science Hill at all times of day.
Other proposals for improving the site include sprucing up Prospect Street by adding a fast-food establishment on the first floor of the Becton Center, turning the Farmington Canal Greenway into a pedestrian-friendly path and improving campuswide transportation overall, according to the report.
“There is a certain amount of confidence that the location, its isolation and relative inaccessibility — that these can be solved by enhancing a variety of physical pathways and having a transportation system that’s equally responsive and effective,” Sledge said.
But students remain skeptical. Asked their opinions of the proposed location, many responded with palpable angst Tuesday. Others were more discreet, but they expressed the same concern: Students in the new colleges would feel imprisoned in the bleak wilderness of Science Hill.
“It is too far from central campus,” Ari Evans ’09 said. “I can foresee a situation where the new colleges will be much more insular than the current colleges.”
Ariel Baker-Gibbs ’11, too, said she sees the proposed location as inconvenient.
“The cemetery would definitely add an interesting ambience, though,” she added.
— Paul Needham contributed reporting.