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Preserve UMass advocates for historic buildings survey

The ability for Preserve UMass to advocate for a survey of historic buildings on the University of Massachusetts campus began as adversarial between the group’s members and the administration.

According to Joseph Larson, chairman of Pelham’s Historical Commission and correspondence secretary for Preserve UMass, back in May 2007, a document called the “Building Conditions Report,” broke down the actions the University intended to take into six categories, ranging from keeping the building up-to-date to allowing some to deteriorate.

Preserve UMass wanted a seat at the table to discuss with the University a way in which they organization could have an input in the decision-making process.

Richard Nathhorst, who is a capital project manager for the University, spoke about the relationship at the beginning of negotiations and the mindset of the administration.

“The administrators aren’t necessarily immediately open to having any of their administrative prerogatives circumscribed by restrictions,” Nathhorst said.

Larson was less politically correct in his assessment of the state of affairs back in 2007.  “It was arrogant people working for the president’s office who essentially were giving us the finger,” he said.

The first word, when Larson described his role in the process as advocate for a professionally done historical survey was “agitator,” adding that his first bit of agitation came in 2007.

“We weren’t getting anywhere [with the administration], so we nominated the campus for listing by a state private organization for the ‘10 most endangered historic resources in the Commonwealth’ list,” Larson said. “That was our way of getting attention.”

Much of the conflict, according to Larson, came at the end of 2007 when UMass knocked down one of the cow barns in order to build the new Recreation Center. Because the building was being constructed with state money, the University ran into a problem.  According to the chairman of the Amherst historical commission, Jim Wald, during the 1970s, about 20 buildings were placed on the state registry, meaning that if they were to be altered, which the University would be doing to the buildings by knocking them down to build the Recreation Center, they had to notify the state.

“UMass ran a fowl of two problems. [They] tried to knock down historic buildings and they failed to deal with Environmental Protection Agency regulation,” Wald said.

When Preserve UMass saw that the cow barn had been knocked down, they told the state.  The State Historical Commission agreed with Preserve UMass and stopped work on the Recreation Center.

“Those big old barns were on the historic inventory … they started to tear it down and they didn’t want to notify the state historical commission, so we blew the whistle on them,” Larson said. “That caused construction on a $50 million project to come to a screeching halt for seven weeks because they were in violation of environmental law and state historic law.”

Environmental law was applied to the situation because, according to Larson, the EPA covers a wide array of things, including historic values on the landscape.

From this seven-week work stoppage, there eventually was a negotiation reached between the UMass administration, Preserve UMass and the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

In March of 2008, a Memorandum of Agreement signed by all three parties stipulated that the University would act in “Accordance with the following stipulations to mitigate the effect of the project.”

There were four points, two of which are especially important to Preserve UMass. One of those agreements was the creation of a “Campus Cultural Resources Survey,” which has allowed for the classifications of 105 buildings at UMass to be filed in the state’s historical register. The other main point is that there would be “a permanent exhibit documenting and displaying the history of the Massachusetts Agricultural College.”

According to Larson, this exhibit will include stone bases with bronze tablets on top that portray the changing history of the campus since 1863, erected near the Recreation Center.

According to the minutes from a Faculty Senate meeting, in the spring of 2008, the administration took from a list of seven or eight firms and narrowed them down to three before picking a winner. Vice Chancellor Joyce Hatch said, “There are three finalists. The finalist has not been selected but is about to be.”

From there, Larson, Wald and those who advocated for the survey said that they could not have been happier about the pick of the administration.

Architecture and engineering firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott was asked to conduct the survey of the historic buildings.

Larson said, “The University hired an outstanding team of people to do this. They are nationally known.”

The quality of the firm did not seem to be up for debate. “They have got a rich history of doing restoration work and doing surveys on historical buildings … They went and dug up as much information as they could possibly do through their research efforts,” said director of facilities and campus planning, Jim Cahill.

Concerning the impact of the survey, Larson said, “There are still people around the campus who are really pissed off about this. Now, whether a building is significant or not has been decided upon by a professional assessment.”

Overall, however, the mood seems to have tamed. In an e-mail, Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Joyce Hatch said “It was important for the campus to conduct the historical study and it was worth the investment. It provides a more detailed historical perspective than was on file. The historical information will inform the planning and construction process and will help in making good decisions about our future.”

Currently, Larson said he is very positive about the way the administration is behaving, especially Jim Cahill, who he says his group has always had “good communications” with.

“At this point, the University is doing some very good things,” said Larson. “I want them to receive the credit for doing them. Things are on the right track.”

Larson said, looking back on the experience of achieving the survey, “We probably wouldn’t have achieved this if they hadn’t made those stupid mistakes [not filing their construction plans with the state].”

In a meeting with Mark Harrison and Larry Snyder from the University’s Physical Plant and Shane Conklin from Facilities Planning, an outline for building planning at UMass was discussed.

While the buildings that were documented in the historic survey have been filed with the state, Massachusetts still has some questions for UMass. It is estimated by Cahill that the survey will be finalized in the spring of 2010.

It is unclear how the historical survey will impact campus planning in the future.  According to Conklin, “How [the historical survey] impacts broader planning … that is something that is yet to come.”

What was made clear is that even if a building is set to be demolished, any essential maintenance is still going to be done by physical plant to ensure the safety of the residents that occupy the space inside.

“Life safety takes precedent always,” said Snyder.

Larson said that he wants the historical survey to be a factor in campus planning. How much the historical survey will actually be a factor remains to be seen. Right now, over the course of a 45-minute interview, there was no concrete chance in the way UMass looks at its projects because of the historical survey.

Conklin said that the historical survey would probably be assessed more closely once its final version has been drafted in order to cohesively compile a strategic document for campus building plans.

Michael Phillis can be reached at mphillis@student.umass.edu.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a three-part series examining the recent fate of historic buildings on the University of Massachusetts campus. The next article will be published in print and on DailyCollegian.com on Thursday, Dec. 3.

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