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Preliminary sketch of ECC expansion held under wraps

Some Erie County and Erie Community College officials finally have an idea of how a new $30 million academic building on ECC’s North Campus in Amherst will look – thanks to the first artist renderings of the long-delayed project.

But as of Tuesday, those officials were refusing to share the design sketches with the public.

Kideney Architects, the architectural and engineering firm hired by the county for the project, recently created renderings that feature a two-story building, with large windows and a pale yellow exterior to fit in with the rest of the campus. The building is set along the Youngs Road side of the campus, forming a grassy quadrangle with the library to the east, Gleasner Hall to the north and Spring Student Center to the south.

College officials proudly showed off the sketch last week to faculty members and the college’s board of trustees – with the caveat that the design was likely to change as the construction management firm worked through more detailed cost estimates.

“This is a very rough sketch,” cautioned William D. Reuter, the college’s chief administrative and financial officer, during the meeting with trustees.

The project has been delayed for years since the state first agreed in 2010 to earmark $15 million and the county $7.5 million, to go along with the college’s share, $7.5 million. The building also continues to be at the center of considerable debate – as well as an ongoing lawsuit – over the future of ECC and its three campuses.

The artist’s sketch is the most tangible sign to date that the project was moving forward, and board members greeted Reuter’s brief presentation with enthusiasm. And yet, the release of the rendering came with its own controversy. When The News requested a copy of the sketch, college officials declined, even after acknowledging that they had shown it at a public meeting. They then deferred to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who also refused to provide a copy of the current design, saying the college wasn’t authorized to show it.

“The college should not have released it, because it’s still a work in progress,” said Poloncarz. “We feel the college made a mistake by doing that.”

Poloncarz described the drawing as an “architect’s rendering without the construction manager’s participation.” He said he was concerned that the public would have expectations for the building based on the current drawing, which is a draft.

“The look may completely change,” he said. “We don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”

A more accurate depiction of the building should be ready in another month or two, after the construction management company, Turner Construction, has a chance to work closely with Kideney, Poloncarz said.

The new facility will be the most expensive construction project in the history of the college of about 11,000 students. It is expected to house programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines, inside 55,000 square feet – about half the size of an average Home Depot store.

College officials are counting on the building to key the revitalization of an Amherst campus in need of significant upgrades and to help turn around enrollment declines in recent years.

In addition to the design drawings, college officials pointed to other signs of progress on the building project, including crews recently wrapping up soil testing of the planned construction site and the college’s accumulation of $5 million, mostly in rental income and chargeback fee income, toward its $7.5 million obligation for the project.

The college will rely on more rental income, primarily through cell tower leases, along with private contributions through the ECC Foundation, to fill the remaining $2.5 million gap.

Bids on the project are likely to go out in the next two to three months, with construction scheduled to start next spring and a proposed completion date of summer 2017.

But there’s already been at least a couple setbacks, too. Plans for a geothermal heating and cooling system are now a non-starter. “The cost-benefit is not there,” Reuter said. “It sounds great, but the payback is hundreds of years, versus a few years.” Soil testing also revealed significant amounts of bedrock, prohibiting a basement from being built, Poloncarz said.

County and college officials don’t know how the contract bidding will end up, either. If the bids are higher than anticipated, some building elements may need to be scaled back or eliminated.

“I’d rather the money go to classrooms than a fancy exterior,” Poloncarz said. “The most important thing to focus on is not the size of the building, but does it really address the curriculum needs of the college.”

Also looming is an Article 78 lawsuit challenging construction of the facility until a full environmental review happens. State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Chimes dismissed the suit in January, saying none of the petitioners – former County Executive Joel A. Giambra, ECC student Wil Turner and North District Buffalo Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. – had the proper legal standing to mount a court challenge. But the petitioners appealed to the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which is scheduled to hear arguments in Rochester in January.

Giambra continues to oppose locating the STEM building in Amherst, arguing that it will contribute to more sprawl and dilute the college’s already limited resources.

With several years of enrollment declines, the college has had to raise tuition by nearly 15 percent over the past two years and dip into savings to balance its budgets.

“I don’t understand, based on their financial condition, how they’re going full speed ahead” with the project, Giambra said.

Poloncarz said the county and college won a decisive victory in State Supreme Court that will be difficult to overturn. Giambra and the other petitioners were arguing over settled policy decisions, which the courts won’t weigh in on, he added.

“They really don’t have any merit when it comes to a legal argument,” he said.