Overcoming Obstacles

May 1, 2006
Schools and universities can face many stumbling blocks as they guide their construction projects to completion.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that after nine years, it was removing the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl from the Endangered Species list.

The news item caught the attention of Todd Jaeger, associate to the superintendent and general counsel for the Amphitheater (Ariz.) Unified School District in Tucson. Then again, how could it not? With owl-themed knick-knacks and souvenirs lining the bookshelves of his district office as reminders of the school system's legal skirmishing with the small bird and its protectors, Jaeger won't soon forget crossing paths with the pygmy owl.

In the end, the Amphitheater district achieved its goal — it was able to repel challenges to its construction plans and open Ironwood Ridge High School in Oro Valley, Ariz., in 2001. The school now accommodates more than 1,800 students in grades 9 to 12. But because a pygmy owl was observed in 1997 near the site selected for the high school, the district had to wage a two-year legal battle that added $2 million to $3 million to the cost of the project.

What the Amphitheater district experienced as it tried to build a high school is not unique. Across the nation, thousands of schools and universities are in the midst of construction projects that can stall because of unanticipated obstacles. The resulting delays can cause budget contingencies to evaporate and force students and staff in desperate need of more space to bide their time in cramped and inadequate facilities.

Problems are bound to arise on construction projects, but when they do, administrators should address them quickly before setbacks become too costly or difficult to overcome. Schools and universities need to weigh the financial costs of the potential solutions, as well as the political and public-relations consequences of the options before them, before deciding whether to push forward with a project or to find a less troublesome site.

“You need to look at your design to see if you have any potential problem,” says Jaeger. “Schools need to be aware of archeological, environmental, and species and wildlife issues. You need to bring the lawyers and architects together and work on finding a solution.”

In the Amphitheater district, it was pygmy owls. On other campuses, it has been bats, salamanders, shrimp, toads or other creatures whose habitat may be threatened by construction (see sidebar, p. 18). Some schools have had to put the brakes on their construction plans because of environmental concerns, neighborhood worries over noise and congestion, or preservationists' beliefs that a campus expansion encroaches into areas of historical significance.

Unexpected findings under the ground — an undocumented pipeline or a long-forgotten burial site — can throw a school construction project off course. Even something as simple as rain can wreak havoc to a construction schedule if it comes down too hard and too often.

Weighing alternatives

Good facilities planners try to anticipate potential trouble before it can disrupt a construction schedule, but in the case of endangered species, the presence of protected creatures might not be discovered until a school or university already has committed to a site and a schedule.

“You have to know an endangered species is present, and in many cases, that's a closely guarded secret,” says Jaeger. “You're never going to know for certain.”

And when endangered species become involved, federal regulations can force local districts to alter or abandon well-laid plans.

The Amphitheater district bought the land for what was to become Ironwood Ridge in 1994, three years before the pygmy owl was given endangered species protection. Shortly after the protection was granted, state game officials reported the presence of the owl on the proposed school site. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put a hold on construction of Ironwood Ridge while it studied the situation.

Jaeger says the district considered finding a different site for the school, but opted to fight for its site. Ironwood Ridge's original design would have required a wash-crossing permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The district decided instead to put a bridge over the wash; it no longer needed a federal permit, and federal officials no longer had standing to hold up construction.

“We knew that our use of the washes created a legal entanglement with the federal government,” says Jaeger. “We eliminated that part of the design to get out of the washes.”

Subsequently, an environmental group sued the district and delayed construction further. But after a federal appeals court ruled in Amphitheater's favor in 1999, the district began immediately to clear the site and begin construction.

Room to grow

When the University of Illinois — Chicago (UIC) campus was being planned in the 1960s on the city's Near West Side, it stirred controversy by claiming land from existing residential neighborhoods. Opponents fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop what was then known as Circle Campus, but the university prevailed, and construction was completed in 1965.

Thirty years later the university again met opposition from those seeking to preserve existing communities, as school officials pursued plans to create a more campus-like atmosphere for the school's 25,000 students. The South Campus expansion called for adding residence halls to what had been a mostly commuter campus, as well as other housing and retail establishments.

The expansion claimed the city's famed Maxwell Street area, which for decades was home to a raucous open-air market known as a gateway to waves of immigrants who had just arrived in the city.

Maxwell Street preservationists have tried unsuccessfully to prevent UIC from including the area in its South Campus expansion. The university, while pushing forward with its expansion, has tried to acknowledge the historical significance of the area by incorporating some of the past in the expansion, says Mark Rosati, associate chancellor at the university.

UIC created a community advisory council to foster ongoing communication with area residents. The school also strived to include the surrounding community by making some of the construction jobs and contracts available to community people.

“The keys to our approach were transparency and engagement — listening to the community and fulfilling our promises,” says Rosati.

The Maxwell Street market was relocated a few blocks east; and the university has plans to preserve several buildings in the area, as well as incorporate the facades of old buildings into the new retail locations on Maxwell Street.

The Maxwell Street police station, on the National Register of Historic Places and given prominence 20 years ago when its exteriors were used as the Hill Street station on the “Hill Street Blues” TV show, was renovated and now houses the university police department.

Public art and historical markers also will help students and campus visitors make the link between the old Maxwell Street and the new South Campus, says Rosati.

The university expects to complete the $525 million South Campus expansion in 2009. In addition to housing, it is adding academic buildings, including a convocation center that will hold 800 to 1,000 students; and the University Village retail development is bringing a host of restaurants and shops to campus.

“We wanted to bring commercial establishments to the campus as a way to broaden the community,” says Rosati. “We really want to bring more people to campus.”

Rain delays

Even when all the political and public-relations hurdles have been cleared, and a site's physical features pose no problems, construction schedules can fall victim to Mother Nature.

“Nobody plans for it to rain in California,” laments Jim Silva, director of facilities, planning and construction for the Los Gatos Union School District. “We've had six to eight weeks of rain, and it's been a mess.”

Los Gatos is rebuilding two of its elementary schools, and the rain could cause the district to miss its goals for reopening those buildings. While construction proceeds at Daves Avenue Elementary School in Los Gatos, the 500 students in grades K to 5 have been relocated to an empty school in San Jose, dubbed “Daves Away,” in the neighboring Union School District. The work is supposed to be finished in December, but the rain may force the students to stay longer at Daves Away, and that means added lease and busing costs.

“We may have to extend our interim housing,” says Silva.

At Blossom Hill Elementary School, students have been housed in about 35 portable classrooms as major renovation takes place around them. The renovations are scheduled to be completed next year, but the rain may force the children to remain in the portables a little while longer.

Other than the rain setbacks, Silva says, the Los Gatos district has had good fortune on its construction projects.

“We have a pretty good process,” he says. “We pre-qualify all our general contractors, I read my construction contracts carefully before bidding, and I have good attorneys.”

Creatures great and small

As development pushes out farther from established communities, many education institutions discover that the sites they have selected for new facilities have occupants with previous claims to the territory — wildlife whose habitats may be protected by federal regulations:

  • In Ann Arbor, Mich., construction of a high school has been set back a year because of concerns that eight salamanders found at the site were endangered. A group of environmentalists sued the district to protect the salamanders, but the suit was dismissed, and tests eventually determined that the animals were not endangered smallmouth salamanders.

    However, the district says it still will treat the amphibians as if they were endangered and will create ponds at the site to relocate the animals. The school was supposed to open in 2007, but because of the salamander snafu and other construction snags, the opening is now scheduled for 2008.

  • In the Ashtabula (Ohio) Area City School District, construction on a new Lakeside High School was halted briefly in 2004 when a pregnant Indiana bat, which is an endangered species, was discovered near the 123-acre school site. After about a month, the school district reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allowed construction to resume. Two softball diamonds and a soccer field were moved to another location on the site, and other ball fields were reconfigured to avoid damaging the potential bat habitat.

    Because of the quick resolution of the issue, school construction has remained on schedule and is set to open later this year. But officials say the delays cost the district $3,000 to $4,000 a day.

  • In the San Diego district, fairy shrimp, an endangered species, were found at the site of the planned Jonas Salk Elementary School, delaying construction for at least a year. The district has to redesign the site to make sure the vernal pools where the shrimp live are protected.

  • In St. Mary's County, Md., construction of an elementary school was threatened by the presence of the Eastern narrow-mouthed toad on the proposed site. The school system eventually decided to find another location for the school.

Comments? E-mail Kennedy, staff writer, at [email protected].

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