Q&A: Iris Weinshall

Vice Chancellor Iris Weinshall

Iris Weinshall joined CUNY as Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction, and Management in 2007 after six years as New York City's Transportation Commissioner. She oversees a $3 billion capital construction budget and recently discussed her priorities for maintaining, renovating and constructing buildings at the University's 23 colleges and professional schools.

Q: One of the first things you did, ordering an analysis of every one of the university's 296 buildings to help you determine system-wide needs and priorities. What did that analysis show? And how has the analysis guided the decisions you've made since then?

Vice Chancellor Weinshall: When I was appointed Vice Chancellor in 2007, one of the things that I did and really enjoyed was visiting all of the campuses. I met with the vice presidents for administration, the college presidents, but most importantly, the officers on the campuses who were in charge of facilities.

And what became very clear in conversations with all of these individuals is that there had been neglect on the part of the university in terms of critical maintenance for all of our campuses.

These were not the big, grandiose projects, but in many cases, they were the smaller projects, fixing a boiler or fixing a lighting system or fixing elevators and escalators. And the need for these projects became evident when you went around the campuses and saw that things just weren't working correctly.

Then-Governor Spitzer, who spoke very encouragingly of higher education and in particular CUNY, made it clear that he was prepared in his first budget to afford CUNY and SUNY a lot of capital money to work on both the larger projects and the smaller projects.

So, working with SUNY, we did a report on critical maintenance for CUNY. When I say working with SUNY, what we did basically is we used their consultant -- so we didn't have to go out and procure another consultant -- who was able to do this analytical work for us. And it included all of the campuses. And what became very clear is that there were minor and major projects, which had not been tended to.

You know, having been DOT commissioner, I understand that if you don't do critical maintenance the systems begin to break down. And in this economic time it's very difficult to get large projects done, new buildings, so we have to really maintain what we have.

The report showed that we had a backlog of critical maintenance projects to the tune of about $1.4 billion. And when we went to the legislature to present our capital budget, it was very useful and it was very advantageous to have this report because it wasn't a bunch of talking heads saying we need this and we need that. We had the data to back it up.

And so in the capital budget last year, the Governor made a commitment to critical maintenance. He basically said over a five-year period, I will fund all of these critical maintenance projects.

Last year we got $284 million for critical maintenance projects. This year, the Governor didn't put in a lot of capital projects, but Governor Patterson kept the promise to fund these critical maintenance projects.

I might note that we already have something like 147 projects in the pipeline that we've started to work on. And we're hopeful that we will be able to not only spend last year's $284 million, but also get started on this year's money. Even though the legislature hasn't passed the budget, we're confident that they will include this funding.

Q: Could you expand upon your priorities in the current budget and what sorts of things we're talking about when we talk about critical maintenance?

A: Sure. The priorities in the capital budget pretty much fall into three categories. One is critical maintenance and I'll get back to that. The second is the Decade of Science that Chancellor Goldstein has declared for CUNY, so many of our projects focus on upgrading science facilities. And the third is ongoing and new projects, new buildings that may not be science-oriented, but are desperately needed by the campuses.

In terms of the Decade of Science, we are working on a major project at City College that includes the CUNY-Wide Advanced Science Research Center, or ASRC, which is a 400,000 square foot state-of-the art science research complex for the University; and a new science building for CCNY.

At a cost of about $700 million this will be the most modern science facility in the CUNY family and it will be money well-spent. We are also building an annex onto Remsen Hall, a new science facility at Queens College.

We are not just looking at the big projects, but have also focused on revamping science labs at the University. And we produced new teaching labs in record time. It used to be that a project would take two or three years to complete. But we have fast-tracked these projects and they will be used hopefully in the fall semester.

We are also constructing a new academic building and science building at New York City Tech; and a new performing arts building at Brooklyn College. These are new projects that will add performance space, classrooms and laboratories to these individual campuses.

On the critical maintenance side, we are focusing on projects that relate to base building operations, such as new boilers, new elevators, new escalators, and façade work on some of buildings.

As an example, I visited Queensborough Community College and found that the doors to the buildings are out of synch. It doesn't look very good, and a lot of cold air comes in, which upsets the HVAC system. We're going to fix these problems, and make other improvements to Queensborough's buildings.

Q: How does the state's difficult financial situation figure into this? And, of course, we also have the prospect of federal money coming in through a stimulus program.

A: The governor was very generous to CUNY last year. We got record dollars in terms of our capital budget, a total of $1.6 billion, which was probably the greatest amount CUNY has ever received.

They don't normally do a large capital budget every year; it's usually done every two or three years. So we're very thankful to the Governor and to the DOB.

But we're not sitting on our laurels. We have developed a new five-year capital plan and some of the projects have already been funded by the Governor's preliminary budget. He's awarded more money for the ASRC complex, for the new Hunter School of Social Work, as well as the CUNY FIRST Project, which is a major new computerized system at CUNY.

But the legislature has not spoken, so we are going up to Albany to lobby for some other projects here at CUNY. For example, we're going to lobby for a new student services building at York College. As for the CUNY Law School, which is in a building in Flushing, Queens that has outlived its usefulness, we're going to be lobbying for money for a new building. At Baruch, we're lobbying for additional money for 17 Lex.

We'll have to wait and see what the Legislature ultimately decides. But as you noted, there's going to be this economic stimulus package.

And in the House bill, higher education is talked about in its own section. Six billion dollars have been allocated for higher education. And the criteria is that the projects have to be green, they have to be shovel-ready, and they have to be of a nature that not only will they add jobs in the state in which the building is located, but there should be a further creation of jobs throughout the country.

So as an example, you put in a curtain wall in a new building.

Q: A curtain wall is a glass façade?

A: A glass façade. Well, we don't produce curtain walls here in New York City or New York State, but they're produced elsewhere. So you may create 6,000 construction jobs, but then another 3,000 jobs where you have to manufacture the materials. We have submitted our proposal to the Governor because each state puts in its own proposal. Again, we've got to be very thankful to Governor Patterson. We put in a package of $1.1 billion for CUNY and he incorporated our entire package and sent it to Washington.

We're keeping our fingers crossed that when the Senate comes out with its version, higher education stays in.

Ultimately, I don't think we'll get the $1.1 billion, but if we get one or two projects, we will be extremely thankful and we will put those dollars to work very quickly.

Q: You mentioned green buildings. What is the situation with CUNY going green?

A: We have really embraced this concept vis-à-vis our new buildings, as well as university-wide projects. Many of our projects that are in the planning stages at a minimum will be Silver-LEED certified.

Q: And LEED is what?

A: It's the energy-efficient standard that's now used in constructing new buildings in which you get points for various aspects of a building, such as what type of tiling you put down, what type of lighting goes into the building, the base building, whether you're using an HVAC system which is energy efficient, whether you're using a system where the lights turn off when you walk out of the room and turn on when you enter.

All of the projects we are planning will be, at minimum, Silver LEED-certified, even our ASRC complex, which is a very complex set of buildings.

While some of the projects that are already in construction and began a number of years ago will not have the Silver LEED-certification, we have gone back in and made some corrections to make these buildings more energy efficient.

For example, we're constructing a new 600,000 square foot academic building for John Jay College and have added a number of items—a green roof, energy efficient lighting—so that even though it won't be Silver LEED-certified because it would be very costly to go back and redesign certain aspects, the building be more efficient.

Q: To return to the financing, let me ask you about New York City's contribution because they are also in serious financial shape. I believe that the mayor asked all city agencies to push off 20% of their capital programs into the future. How does that affect City University, because the city does pay the cost of the community colleges and Medgar Evers?

A: The way it works is that the community colleges are funded via a 50/50 split between the state and the city. And the city in their November plan created a new fifth year of the capital budget, and 20% of CUNY's capital budget on the city side was put into this fifth year. The implications for CUNY were that about $74 million had to be pushed out to this fifth year.

Unfortunately, the greatest impact will be on the community colleges. For the senior colleges, we were able to substitute state money for the city money, but we didn't have this ability regarding the community colleges because 50% is funded by the city already.

I will say, though, that both borough presidents and council people have been very generous and very helpful to CUNY. What we have tried to do is to substitute borough president and city council money for the money that had to be pushed out into the fifth year.

So we're trying to be creative. We're trying to work with whatever funds we have to try and make up for the difference in these projects.

Our biggest concern, quite frankly, is the capital plan. The city's capital plan this year was to make sure that Fiterman Hall was fully funded. It's the BMCC building that was damaged beyond repair on 9-11. We worked very hard with Speaker Silver and Mayor Bloomberg to make sure that money was in place because we're about to bring down the building and want to start construction on the new structure.

Q: That should really help Borough of Manhattan Community College.

A: Absolutely, it's the fastest-growing of all of our community colleges with a record number of students in attendance. This new 300,000 square foot building will be a tremendous asset and will ease a lot of congestion at BMCC. Since we lost Fiterman Hall we've had to rent space in Lower Manhattan, which is very expensive. It's not academic space and was never really meant to be classrooms, so we've had to retrofit these buildings. That's why we are very eager to begin construction on the new Fiterman Hall, which the architectural firm of Pei Cobb has designed for us. It's going to be a spectacular addition to the landscape in Lower Manhattan.

Q: When will that be completed?

A: If everything goes well we hope that students will begin to attend classes in the new Fiterman Hall in the fall of 2012.

Q: That's good. But nevertheless, you are able to project some things like the renovation of the Field Building at 17 Lexington Avenue for Baruch College. How are you able to pull off that kind of wizardry?

A: As I said, the state was very generous last year in giving CUNY a great deal of capital money. We anticipated that it would cost $100 million to renovate 17 Lex, which is what we asked the state for. This is an older style building and one of the more interesting buildings at CUNY. When we went to the legislature, we said if you can't give us the full $100 million, then we'll break the project down into phases. So they gave us $40 million last year for this project, and we broke it down into three phases. We're going to start phase one immediately, which is a lot of the base building work.

We're also very fortunate that there was a high school in that building, which is now moving to another location in the neighborhood. This is going to afford us swing space to be able to move people as we renovate the building.

So we're trying use those dollars in a creative way.

Q: I'm very impressed that the decision was made to continue spending, because some people would think that if my income goes down, I have to cut back on what I'm spending. And yet there are obviously implications if you cut back on capital construction, maintenance, and renovation.

A: Because the economy is in the state that it's in, many private developers are not going to be able to continue with the projects they had planned. In this city, part of our economic engine is the development and the real estate business. And I believe that the Governor and the state recognize that we have to keep construction going in this city and this state. The economic engine now is going to be really run by both CUNY and SUNY and all of the other municipal projects that will get done.

We should never forget that when the New Deal was in place, it was the government that kept things going. If you look at our campuses, both Lehman and Brooklyn colleges were the main beneficiaries of the New Deal. Many of the buildings on those campuses were built during the New Deal. So we hope that we're going to be the next New Deal and keep these projects going.

When times were good the costs were escalating at a very high rate. Projects were going up as much as 20% and 30%. We hope now that the economy is slowing down we'll see the benefit. And if we have to pay less, we'll be able to do more projects because there'll be money left on the table.

So in addition to adding to the inventory of buildings and classroom space at CUNY, we believe these construction projects will also help the economy.

Q: What do you think is the role of public/private partnerships? I'm thinking about the Hunter School of Social Work that's going to go up in East Harlem. Could you talk about that and then more broadly about public/private partnerships?

A: We are very excited about the opportunities in public/private partnerships. You mentioned the Hunter School of Social Work. It's the first one that we were able to successfully complete here at CUNY. And really, it was because of the generosity of the Silberman family. The Hunter School of Social Work was in a building that was not owned by CUNY or by Hunter. It was in a building that was owned by the New York City Community Trust on 79th Street. They decided they didn't want to be in the real estate business, and we were very fortunate that we still had a 67-year lease on the property. So they basically came to us and said look, we want to sell the building and we want to share with you the profits that we make from the building. And CUNY received a $40 million gift that we were able to put into a new facility up in East Harlem.

We are tremendously excited about this project, both from the perspective that is a public/private partnership in that the Brodsky organization will be building this new school for us. They are the organization that bought the 79th Street building, and as part of the sale they had to build a new school for CUNY.

We're excited about being in East Harlem. When you think about it, a social work school probably shouldn't be on 79th Street between Park and Lex, but should be in a neighborhood that could really avail itself of the many services that both the Hunter School of Social Work, and the new School of Public Health that will also be in that building, can offer. So we can't think of a better location.

We're now exploring other opportunities. CUNY is sitting on a number of assets that are in prime neighborhoods that are going through redevelopment. For example, our MFA School at Hunter is on 41st Street and Dyer Avenue right in the middle of the new Hudson Yards redevelopment zone. So that's a possibility. When we complete the new John Jay building, North Hall will be vacated, right on Tenth Avenue, prime real estate. And so we're looking for opportunities to be able to partner with private developers and to create academic space, as well as private use. That's called leveraging your assets, and now that we have completed the Hunter School of Social Work we're looking for other opportunities at the University.

For example, at Brooklyn College there's a parcel that is right outside the school's gate, and the college is very interested in purchasing that parcel. They want to create a new bookstore and maybe some other facilities on that site. So there are creative ways of using these assets and basically leveraging our assets to the University's benefit.

Q: The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York has done a good deal of work for the University over the years. And yet you've decided to do the work on the new Performing Arts Center at Brooklyn College in-house. Could you discuss why you made that change?

A: When I joined the University, we looked at the agreement that we had, which was basically a Memorandum of Understanding between the university and DASNY as to what each of our roles would be. It said that DASNY would do both the financing for CUNY, as well as the construction management.

Well, that Memorandum of Understanding had expired and we had some issues and concerns about DASNY's response to CUNY's needs. We also felt that we wanted to be the ones responsible for the construction of many of these projects because at the end of the day, you only have yourself to blame if you don't make a project either on budget or on time.

The Governor's Office was very welcoming of our idea that we wanted to manage our own construction projects, so we renegotiated our agreement with DASNY. It basically said that the financing had to be done by DASNY because they had the legislative right to do that, but the new agreement states that we can opt in or opt out on their doing our construction management.

So we were looking for a project that we could do first. And we didn't want to break our teeth on a $300 million project. The Performing Arts Center costs about $75 million, and we're working with Norman Pfeiffer & Associates, who are renowned architects in the area of performing art centers. This will be the first large project that we're going to manage. We have also started to do some smaller projects within the University. At Bronx Community College we're building a new daycare center that we're managing ourselves. The other big project we'll be doing ourselves is the new academic building at New York City Tech. That's going to be a 300,000 square foot building and will probably be the first biggie; we're keeping our fingers crossed that we'll be able to get it done on time.

Q: Are there other big challenges on the horizon?

A: The biggest challenge is going to be the economy and how we're able to fare with all of the projects that we have in our pipeline.

We have begun to develop dorms at CUNY and did the first one at City College. We're now in construction at Queens College and we had another dorm slated for the College of Staten Island. We have had to put that project on hold because we weren't able to get the financing in place due to the economic situation. We feel that this is going to be a plus for the College of Staten Island, but because of what's happening in the world we were not able to get this project off the ground.

Another big challenge is creating projects and architecture that reflect the nature and feeling of CUNY. We're very fortunate that leading architects are very eager to bid on our work, from Rafael Vinoly to Robert Stern. We were even were going to use Renzo Piano for a project that was going to be one of our public/private partnerships in Brooklyn, which unfortunately didn't happen.

But they're all very eager to leave their mark on our university system. The challenge is to be able to have buildings which are architecturally very interesting, but are also manageable and that fit in with the feeling of CUNY and what we're trying to accomplish here.

Q: What are your greatest satisfactions so far?

A: First and foremost, my greatest satisfaction was to get the state to recognize last year the importance of adding a record amount of dollars to CUNY's capital budget, and to give us the go-ahead for a lot of these projects. Secondly, I'm very proud of the work that we're doing in East Harlem on the new Hunter School of Social Work and the School of Public Health, not only because it was our first public/private partnership, but because it's a statement by CUNY that we want to be part of the community, and add to the rebirth of East Harlem. Finally, I'm really proud of the work of my staff. These are very dedicated individuals who really care about CUNY and really care about our future. So I'm proud of the staff that I work with and of their commitment to CUNY.