From the glassed-in esplanade encircling the fourth floor of Cesar Pelli’s new Malone Engineering Center on Prospect Street, the mid-afternoon bustle below is unmistakable.

Students and faculty rush between labs and lectures. A construction crane stretches skyward in the distance.

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But after dusk, when research assistants have put down their pipettes and undergraduates have returned to coffee shops and libraries near their residential colleges, there is little more to see than darkness.

Within a decade, if the University constructs two new residential colleges across the street, that will all change. And while students have bemoaned the site for its distance from central campus, Pelli sees it another way.

“What this will do,” he said in a recent interview, “is help bring the sciences into concert with the rest of the University.”

Administrators hope as much. The site, they maintain, has more of an allure than just being the largest, most accessible building plot near the center of campus. University officials see it as no less than the silver bullet that would be the consummate antidote to a century-old campus ailment — the seeming relegation of the sciences to a distant appendage of the campus, Science Hill.

And in that hope lies the answer to why administrators have been so steadfast in their insistence that if the colleges are built, they will be located on the Prospect Street site, and that much is not up for negotiation.

From interviews with more than a dozen current and former Yale officials, this much is clear: The University’s hope is that the new colleges will do no less than transform Science Hill, and in a way beyond what even the half-billion-plus dollar investment in new construction in the area will yield. So much so, in fact, that in a generation, “Science Hill” may not even be part of the Yale lexicon.

It could be known, perhaps, merely as the Hill. And the now-still nighttime view from the Malone Center will be much different.

‘Aesthetic and psychological barriers’

Long ago, Science Hill had another nickname: “Yale in Hartford” — because students and faculty perceived it as that distant from the rest of the University.

The area’s reputation as remote from central campus is hardly a modern development, according to Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, an emeritus professor of history and the author of a forthcoming history of the University.

After acquiring the land from the Hillhouse family about a century ago, the University erected, over the next few decades, a slew of science buildings, some of which still stand today.

But as the buildings went up, it was unclear whether there would be any professors to fill them.

“The Yale College faculty didn’t want to go up on the Hill,” Smith said. “They did, but there was a lot of complaining about it.”

The sound of that griping could still be heard around campus nearly a hundred years after the land acquisition, in 1998, just five years into the presidency of Yale’s 22nd leader, Richard Levin. At that time, the economist and longtime Yale professor sat down with his administrative team to plot the direction in which to steer the University over the next decade.

For one, Levin knew that investing in the sciences — both Yale’s academic programs, and their facilities — was a must. At the end of his list, too, he had another goal: Build two new residential colleges.

But before the expansion of the student body came the science priority. On the Web site for the Office of Public Affairs, in its archive of press releases from just after the turn of the millennium, one link stands out in all caps.

On Jan. 19, 2000, Levin announced that the University would invest $500 million in Science Hill — enough for five new major academic buildings, the Malone Center among them — in the largest such science investment in the University’s history, and one that would aim to “transform” Science Hill.

Pelli’s gleaming building opened in 2005. So did the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building. They may have boosted the University’s profile in the sciences, but buildings can only do so much.

“Right now,” Blair Lanier ’11 said, “there isn’t much going on up there.”

In September 2006, the News reported that the University was quietly conducting an internal study into building two new colleges, and that the base of Science Hill was their destined location. The reaction from students then made clear that $500 million dollars of investment or not, Prospect Street had not shaken its old reputation as nothing more than an afterthought.

This month, in a campuswide poll conducted by the News, 60 percent of students opposed the site. At forums held this fall, students bemoaned the distance — psychological or otherwise — from central campus to Prospect Street. “Putting another Davenport up Science Hill,” one student implored the committee to consider, “is going to be a total disaster in the long run.”

The two committees appointed last winter to study the ramifications of expansion were not much more positive. Their report described the street leading to the colleges as a “long and dull block” with “imposing” buildings and “cramped” sidewalks “that make it feel like a wind tunnel”; the walls of the cemetery adjoining the site was described as “aesthetic and psychological barriers.”

“The doubters were many,” the committees wrote in their report released Feb. 18. “Why, it was asked, did the colleges have to be located there?”

‘A cultural problem’

The answer to that question is partly a matter of happenstance, partly one of vision.

University planners began covertly mapping out sites for the new colleges a decade ago, and the site on Prospect Street behind the Grove Street Cemetery was not their only option. Several properties closer to central campus — including the site of Swing Space, the parking lot behind Hendrie Hall at the foot of Cross Campus, and the Hall of Graduate Studies — were found to be large enough to accommodate a single new residential college.

But those sites all had complications — evicting graduate students, say, or building a high-rise tower to ensure the colleges were large enough to accommodate the necessary number of students, according to current and former Yale officials. And administrators wanted to build the two new colleges together, largely in the name of efficiency.

The Prospect Street site, on the other hand, had no glaring drawbacks, save for the location, of course. It was big enough. It had no elevation problems or issues with access.

The site, Provost Andrew Hamilton said in an interview Saturday, “provides the space necessary for two new residential colleges.”

But that was not all.

“At the same time,” he added, “it also provides an opportunity to solve a cultural problem at Yale that we all want to solve, which is to increase the integration of Science Hill.”

The two committees seized on that point, too.

“It’s not just about admitting more students,” said Associate Dean of Yale College Penelope Laurans, the vice chair of both committees. “It’s about transforming Science Hill.”

And nothing, Laurans added, “brings a place alive like undergraduate residents.”

Meanwhile, a half-billion dollars later, the transformation Levin promised eight years ago still seems elusive, at least in the minds of students if not in the greater scientific community. And this new transformation is no certainty either.

“The skeptics,” the report said, “are correct to view this move as a big and risky one. And of course no one of the present generation can be certain whether this is the right move.”

Connecting the colleges to the campus

The new colleges would not be the University’s first attempt to bring Science Hill into the fold of central campus. The logistics of such a goal were a major theme of Yale’s Framework for Campus planning, a 185-page study completed by the New York architectural firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners in 2000.

Among the Framework’s chief recommendations was a focus on connectivity — between the Medical School and Central Campus, and between Central Campus and Science Hill, for instance.

Science Hill, the Framework document explained, developed “essentially separate” from Central Campus over time. Even today, the report concluded, the Prospect Street corridor and surrounding streets “remain physically and perceptually isolated” from the rest of campus.

In interviews, members of the committee examining the expansion’s consequences in regard to student life said when the committee first convened year ago, many members had serious reservations about the proposed location.

But over time, the prevailing sentiment shifted.

“We got more and more excited about how the function of these colleges is to enliven a part of the University that’s kind of there, as the students call it, as ‘the day campus,’ ” said former Calhoun College Master William Sledge, the chair of the committee. “It creates a sort of odd statement with us putting so much emphasis on the sciences. … [But] this has the option to make Science Hill a more integrated part of the campus, and I think that’s part of what’s very appealing.”

But not everyone on the committee agreed. Some cited the impenetrability of the stone-walled cemetery. Others, the wind tunnel of Prospect Street. And, most agreed, the concrete hulk that is the Becton Center is not likely to win an architecture prize anytime soon.

And while adding a fast food establishment or other commercial space to the building would surely please students, as suggested in the committees’ report, some officials speculated that it probably would not have the same positive effect on business owners, who could be set up for failure unless the University props them up financially.

“Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine that retail would work on Prospect Street,” said Alan Plattus, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the School of Architecture. “It seems like a stretch. If it were done, it would have to be done very artificially.”

And so the epic transformation administrators talk about, some observers say, may not be so easily effected.

“It’s hard to imagine it,” one senior University official said. “You walk that block — it’s pretty unwelcoming.”

And, the official said, many on the faculty — which on the whole has taken a more optimistic view, compared to the student body, of how the Prospect Street site could blossom — may have a distorted view of the site, because they work there.

“This is the great divide between the faculty and the students,” the official said. “For [the faculty] to feel that that’s the edge of the known world, of course it’s not — it’s the center of their universe.”

But it is not for students. Instead, as one administrator put it, the area is a sort of twilight zone.

“I’m not in love with the location,” said Jesse Wolfson ’08, a member of the committee that examined the expansion’s effects on the University’s academic resources. “I don’t think anyone is.”

Social solutions

But for students a decade from now, that twilight zone could be much different.

“That doesn’t mean they’ll feel like being in the middle of Cross Campus,” Plattus said. “But there’s no doubt that that whole area has a lot of room for improvement.”

And such improvements must be realized, the committees concluded. The University, they said, “must commit itself with the utmost seriousness and imagination to using all necessary resources” to lay concerns over the site to rest.

That imagination begins with the eight proposed solutions laid out by the committees, including adding the café or coffee shop to the Becton Center, improving the Farmington Canal Greenway for use as a pedestrian avenue and bike path, and building the much-discussed “third building” next to the new colleges to further lure students to the area.

A new gym planned for the Sterling Chemistry Lab and the possible construction of intramurals fields nearby could do that, too. So will the new Social Sciences Building under construction now, and the soon-to-be-renovated Seeley Mudd Library, which one day will re-emerge as something of an auxiliary Bass Library.

“I think what’s going to happen is that that area is going to be so much a part of the campus that people will look back and wonder what all the worrying was about,” said University Planner Laura Cruickshank. “Part of that is because of Science Hill and all that’s going on there.”

And there is hope: In the last year, the University took a space isolated underground — the Cross Campus Library — and transformed it into an attractive venue. Perhaps it can take a space isolated up a hill and do the same, too, said Joseph Gordon, the deputy dean of Yale College and the chairman of the academic resources committee.

“I know some people say, ‘How can you make Seeley Mudd attractive?” Gordon said. “They made CCL attractive,” he added, “and I would never have believed that was possible.”

A new nucleus

But what does not appear to be possible, at least at the moment, is persuading Yale students to give the site a chance.

“If students already complain about having to walk to TD — which is far closer — I imagine it will only be worse with this new location,” Zoelle Egner ’10 said.

Egner was not alone in her consternation. In a questionnaire sent to undergraduates in November by the two committees, seven in 10 respondents voiced opposition to the site, and even science majors were, on the whole, opposed to it.

Science faculty, on the other hand, largely saw it in another light.

“We have this sort of culture that if it’s not right here on Old Campus, it’s in Siberia,” said Kurt Zilm, a chemistry professor who sat on the academic resources committee. “This would have a profound change in that sort of view of the campus.”

Meg Urry, the chair of the Physics Department, was just as enthusiastic.

“For many years, Science Hill has been somewhat isolated from the ‘main’ campus,” she said. “New residential colleges would help bridge the divide.”

Making that connection, administrators hypothesize, would improve the Yale experience both in and outside of the classroom. For one, it would be a boon to the science professors who struggle to attract students to their classes because of their disdain for trekking up Science Hill. Symbolically, it would seem to counteract Yale’s reputation of favoring the arts and humanities and bolster its credibility as a science-oriented school.

And, as School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 put it, the colleges would make Science Hill feel “much more a part of Yale.”

“Science students complain that they are isolated up there, and the new colleges and all these projects should help make Science Hill less isolated,” Stern said in a recent interview. “In that way, this expansion is a great tonic for the sciences at Yale.”

Levin sees it that way, too.

“Rather than think of this as too far away, this is actually an opportunity,” he said Monday. “Let’s change our whole perception of campus and bring the sciences into the mainstream of Yale.”

Sitting in a study on the second floor of Woodbridge Hall on Saturday, just moments after the Yale Corporation directed University administrators to proceed with planning on the colleges in preparation for final approval later this year, Senior Fellow Roland Betts ’68 unfurled a large map of the Yale campus.

He pointed to the Grove Street Cemetery. Look 100 years ahead, he said. As the campus grows, the cemetery will become the geographic center of campus — and the colleges will have contributed to that shift.

But looking 100 years in the past gives another premonition. Around the turn of the century, when the University acquired the land that now comprises Science Hill from the Hillhouse family, the deed of sale contained an ominous requirement.

The “Hill” could only be used for one purpose: Science.

—Ambika Bhushan, Samantha Broussard-Wilson and Paul Needham contributed reporting.