Crumblin' Down

Last week, following the lead of the Twins and the Vikings, the University of Minnesota joined the stampede of tenants looking to escape from the dingy confines of that misbegotten Teflon heap known as the Metrodome. In a glossy, 20-page feasibility study, the U outlined its getaway plan: a $222 million, open-air stadium to be erected on a 32-acre plot just across the street from Williams Arena.

Given the tight budgets, tuition hikes, and unfriendly relations with the Legislature of recent years, you might think the U would steer clear of such a grandiose and costly endeavor. But the push for a new football stadium constitutes a fitting culmination to the unprecedented, $1.2 billion construction bender the U went on during the five-year tenure of former President Mark Yudof.

If the university pursues its stadium dreams, however, planners would be wise to recall the hard lessons from those days. New buildings often cost more than original projections, and one thing that can drive up the bill quickly is pollution. For once, the U seems to be acknowledging that. The feasibility study calculates the cleanup of the stadium site--now a parking lot, but once an industrial area--at some $16 million.

Such considerations were not much in evidence during the planning and construction of the Elmer Andersen Library, the enormous underground complex where the U stores many of its most prized collections. Completed in February 2000, the library wound up costing $46.5 million--some $11 million more than the 1995 estimate.

Since its opening, Andersen has been plagued with troubles. Chunks of sprayed-on concrete fell from the ceiling in the entrance portal, which was subsequently declared a hard-hat zone. There was the chronically malfunctioning temperature and humidity control system, much of which was replaced this summer at a cost of about $300,000. And just last week, officials announced that some collections might be temporarily unavailable due to "routine" repair work on a crumbling seam in the archives.

But the biggest unanticipated expense--and headache--at the Andersen Library involved the polluted water that kept leaking into the caverns from a nearby superfund site. Unanticipated, actually, isn't quite the right word. There were repeated warnings of problems from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and others. U officials simply did not originally budget for the cleanup.

For Calvin Alexander, a geology professor who closely monitored (and predicted) some of the problems at Andersen, the fact that the stadium would sit on contaminated land sets off warning bells. Though he has not examined the particulars at the stadium site, the many monitoring wells on site suggest the presence of chemical "nasties"--and the likelihood of cost overruns.

"As a general rule, these things always cost more than you think," Alexander says. "And once a project like this is under construction, you're not going to stop."

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