news of the day: the AH&IH project

Update (12.7.23): The University’s budget request for the next year includes $40 million in “cost escalations” for the Altgeld/Illini Halls project. I understand these funds are coming on top of the planned $192 million. To bring some context, these money would be enough to fund increasing the salaries of our graduate students by 50% for the next 20-25 years.

Update: the most current (as of 9.14.23) construction schedule.

The news of the day (8.11.23) was this cheerful email from the the LAS, – Altgeld and Illini Hall Project: Restoring Altgeld’s glow, making space for connection, and preserving the sound of the chimes.

If anything could jolt a Math department member out of the pre-semester gloom, it’s some news about the project.

Only, there were no news. The email chatted about “years of accumulated grit from the sandstone exterior of Altgeld Hall,” praised two donors (I second this), wrote about recording Altgeld chimes, advertised a webinar (for potential donors? who knows), and provided abundant links of where one can donate… (Space Naming Opportunities!)

Meanwhile, the department remains suspended in a limbo, its members dispersed all over the campus (and beyond), with no control over the part of Altgeld Hall still operational and, worst, with no idea when this purgatory will be over.

Just two years ago the math faculty, peacefully inhabiting Altgeld Hall and Illini Hall were told to get ready to move. The original plan was to relocate the faculty away from the Illini Hall, demolish it, build a new home for the department on the lot, and move us there, fast.

How fast? Three years ago, UofI blog reported that “The Illini and Altgeld Halls Project calls for the construction of a new building on the site of Illini Hall by 2023 and the renovation of Altgeld Hall by 2025.” (Meaning, we’d be preparing for the move to the new building now.)

Even in November of 2020, they still confidently predicted that “[the d]emolition [of Illini Hall] is scheduled to occur from July 2021 until April 2022. Construction of the new building will begin immediately after demolition, with completion scheduled for February 2024.”

What we have instead of the new building is a fenced parking lot the project web page kindly invites us to watch.

One obvious plausible reason for the delays in this mammoth project is its cost.

When the first draft of the IH&AH project appeared in 2016, it called for a budget of $90-95 million, at around $750 per sqft (that version was smaller than the current one). At the time I thought it is crazy: the ECE Building not a half mile away was being done for mere $410 or so per sqft.

Silly me: the current project’s budget is $192 million, taking it to about $1,100 per sqft. And it is already known that this cost will be overrun, significantly1This, in fact, is what seems to be holding back the Illini Hall constructions right now: the new estimates need to be approved by the Illinois legislature, will all the attendant delays..

Paying this kind of money puts the project into the same league with such vanity endeavors as the new Columbia Business School complex (around $1,180 per sqft). Mind the differences though: everything is more expensive in New York City, the densest populated area in the US, and a crazy environment to develop anything anyway2This is, inter alia, the place where 125th street intersect 130th one… Don’t ask.. What is more, this is the business school of one of the richest private universities in the US. How on Earth are we paying this much? At the background of the national average of $243 per sqft of university classroom/office buildings?

Bad as costs and delays are, the project’s execution is made much, much worse by a nearly complete breakdown in communications. The students, staff and faculty are handled by the project with the indifference of furniture movers. The faculty with offices in Illini Hall were ordered to vacate it in 2021, yet the demolition didn’t start until 2023. The work on Altgeld Hall was supposed to start when the department’s new home is done, but no, it started this (2023) summer, without a clear plan where the faculty will go. We were told to pack in June of this year, only to be told to stop two weeks later. Most classrooms in Altgeld Hall are perfectly usable, yet we are forbidden to use them.

The information on the project status is kept as the nation’s gold reserves. Try to look up the project’s timeline: the webpage3hosted under the “Giving” rubric on the LAS site… tells that “[in] spring 2023, demolition of Illini Hall was completed and Altgeld Hall exterior renovations began.” I am sure the people in charge do know what a timeline means. They just do not care to tell us, and do not even pretend to care.

No doubt, this shutting out the members of the department has some very important business reasons. Sure, – just as completely sidelining the department members from any decision-making processes is. But a general rule of courtesy suggest: if you withhold some information, please explain, why. Is something classified involved? some commercial secrets? what is it, – it cannot be just sheer incompetence, right? or can it?

Pray, tell us.

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