With state funding falling short, seismic needs mounting at UC

Anna Vignet/Senior Staff
Tolman (above) and Campbell Halls are among the buildings on UC Berkeley’s campus that require retrofitting.

With state funding for the University of California plummeting, the seismic repairs of buildings throughout the 10-campus system are being put on hold while UC officials hope that money materializes.

At UC Berkeley, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau ordered 13 classrooms at Tolman Hall shuttered while the campus looks for $202 million to replace the structure, rated  seismically “poor” in a 1997 study of campus buildings.

Officials at UC Davis plan to move all employees and students out of Walker Hall by the end of this year,  after the funding for retrofitting the building — also rated seismically “poor” — was denied this year by the state Legislature.

The efforts at Tolman and Walker Halls come at a crucial time in the University of California’s effort to seismically retrofit its buildings. Of the system’s buildings rated seismically “poor” or “very poor,” 15 percent are still in need of repair or replacement, according to a UC financial plan outlining construction needs over the next 10 years.

Of the 6.5 million square feet at UC Berkeley that need seismic mitigation of some sort, close to 30 percent remain uncorrected, according to the financial plan.  That includes 13 buildings at UC Berkeley slated for work in the next 10 years, including Tolman, Campbell, Lewis and Mulford Halls.

But state funds for capital needs — including seismic repair and accommodating for enrollment growth — have shriveled up in recent years, and university officials find themselves in a sort of limbo, unsure where funding will come from and when.

Most of the university’s capital needs in the last decade have been funded through general obligation bonds approved by voters, but a bond has not been put before voters since 2006, and funds have largely dried up. In 2007, the UC got $450 million in general obligation bond funds for capital needs — by 2009 that number had shrunk to around $31 million, and last year it was just short of $10 million.

In the absence of general obligation bonds, the UC has largely turned to lease-revenue bonds — bonds paid off from lease payments by state agencies using the facilities — to fund its capital program. The UC got $343 million in lease-revenue bonds for capital projects last year, though construction hasn’t begun on projects since the bonds haven’t been sold yet.

Of the $768 million in funding the university requested this year, it only received $45 million for two projects. Among the projects not granted bond funding were the replacement of Tolman Hall and the $26 million project to retrofit Walker Hall at UC Davis.

The university finds itself in a tough spot, said Patrick Lenz, the UC vice president for budget and capital resources. Voter-approved bond money has dried up, and the state — already saddled with debt — has been reluctant to issue new bonds, he said.

He added that without state money, the university would either have to cap and reduce enrollment or find ways to finance the capital projects itself, which he said is unlikely given the state’s declining support for the system.

“The third option is we would do nothing and let these facilities just sit. That would be the worst of all options,” Lenz said. “You haven’t addressed anything  about their condition — they are empty buildings, and they don’t serve any purpose.”

Lenz added that the university is supporting a bill in the state Legislature to place a bond on the ballot for 2012 that would provide $550 million to the UC per year for its capital needs. The bill is still in committee and would have to face a vote from the full Legislature before going on the ballot.

In the meantime, the university estimates that it will require more than $1 billion per year over the next five years to address its most pressing facilities needs, according to the financial plan.

And even if the money does come through, there is still the question of where it will go within the UC system.

Younger campuses like UC Merced and UC Riverside need new buildings to house growing enrollment. Older campuses like UCLA and UC Berkeley require money for seismic repair — these two campuses account for approximately 76 percent of the space remaining to be corrected within the system, according to the same financial plan.

“If you look at the what the university’s capital needs are, clearly we have seismic problems, growth too, infrastructure problems, and capital renewal,” said Edward Denton, UC Berkeley vice chancellor for facilities services. “All of those things are competing for capital money.”

Turning to donors isn’t a viable option for funding these projects either, said Catherine Koshland, UC Berkeley vice provost of teaching, learning, academic planning and facilities.

Most donors want to give to specific programmatic needs at individual departments or sports programs. They view seismic repairs as a state responsibility, she added.

Until state funding picks up again, the campus will have to triage seismic needs as they have with Tolman.

“It is a sign demonstrating a lack of concern about educating the young in California. I find  that very discouraging,” Denton said. “That is going to come back and hurt us not tomorrow but years from tomorrow.”