Checking in on UAlbany's plan to convert the Schuyler Building in Albany into the home of its new engineering college
It was just about a year ago that UAlbany officially announced a plan to turn a former Albany school district building next to its downtown campus into the home for the new College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The idea behind the $60 million project is that the conversion of the Schuyler Building would not only provide space for growing a public option for engineering education in this area, it would also be an injection of activity right into the city's midsection that could help set the surrounding neighborhood on a new, vibrant path. And UAlbany has been seeking $20 million from the state go get things going.
So, how's that coming along?
There's an actual engineering college now
UAlbany's new College of Engineering and Applied Sciences formally came into being July 1, 2015 -- but when the plan for the Schuyler Building officially debuted in February of 2016, the newborn college was still finding its legs after emerging the former College of Computing and Information. And now?
"We are really moving," Kim Boyer, the college's dean, told us this week. "It's a lot of fun."
Boyer said the college now has 800 students -- 300 of them in computer engineering, its first full engineering program, which officially started this school year. And two of those computer engineering students are set to graduate this year. (They had been taking classes leading up to this year.)
Other degree programs are in development: electrical engineering, environmental engineering, bioengineering, mechanical engineering, and industrial and systems engineering. The goal is to add one or two programs a year.
"It's going to be a fully-featured college of engineering," Boyer said.
The college is also now up to about two dozen faculty, with 14 hired during the current recruiting cycle. Boyer said they've had success drawing these faculty members from places with high-profile engineering departments such as Illinois, Michigan, and Purdue with the lure of being able to build a new school. "They want to be part of something."
The university also recently announced that an anonymous donor is set to give the engineering college $4 million to use how the school sees fit. Boyer said the plan is to use the money to set up endowed professorships and graduate students fellowships to draw strong faculty, who can in turn draw students and research funding.
The state of the Schuyler Building
The 105-year-old Schuyler Building -- on the block of North Lake Ave between Western and Washington, next UAlbany's downtown campus -- was once an Albany high school, and it's since served as a home for an elementary school and other programs. It's 127,000 square feet and includes a 1,000-seat auditorium. UAlbany bought it from the Albany school district in 2013 for $2 million.
Boyer said the building is in good shape for its age, with a steel frame that should hold up for centuries to come. And this summer UAlbany will be moving to fix some masonry work and replace all the windows in the building.
The big job will be reconfiguring the inside, because right now it's set up like a traditional high school or elementary school. And that's where the $20 million sought from the state comes in -- it would fund the first phase of interior renovation.
Boyer said it probably would be cheaper to build a new building from scratch. But repurposing the Schuyler Building offers some advantages:
One step at a time
The overall project cost is $60 million, but because the building already exists, the work can be done in phases. Boyer said that first $20 million from the state would buy the college usable space in the not-too-distant future. If the university was building new, it'd have to come up with all the money now and wait for the whole building to be built.
The Schuyler Building's location is knitted right into the fabric of the surrounding city neighborhood, and Boyer said the college is looking to make connections with the community -- whether it's with the STEAM Garden project that's in the works for nearby on Central Ave, programs with local schools, or a maker/tinker space within Schuyler that would be accessible to the public in some way.
"There's a lot of talent out there that never sees the opportunity" Boyer said in reference to the college's goals for outreach.
The university is also hoping that centering the college -- with as many as 2,000 people and the activity they could create -- in the city's midtown section will have a greater positive impact for the city than adding the same number on the uptown campus, which is less connected to the surrounding city.
(UAlbany's downtown campus hosted a series of events last summer as part of Rezone Albany focused on the future of the neighborhood.)
And the money?
Right, so about that $20 million: UAlbany requested that chunk during the last state budget process and didn't get it. Now it's back with another request in the current budget cycle.
And, well, you know how the state budget process is... not exactly transparent. So the fate of this latest request is, like so many other requests, up in the air. (The city of Albany has, itself, some experience with that.)
But university officials think they have a stronger argument for the money this time around. If the idea of the college maybe seemed a little bit theoretical last year, it's now a fully operating school with growing admission.
"We need to find something because we're stuffed in nooks and crannies right now," Boyer said this week of the college's space crunch uptown. "I think it probably changes the conversation with the legislature."
They're also hoping the recent $4 million donation will signal to state leaders that other players see the school as important.
And if the money doesn't come through again?
"We just keep on keepin' on," Boyer said, mentioning the university would continue to explore other options, such as SUNY 2020 funding. "I don't see any realistic way we could hit the pause button."
To go along with the planned Schuyler Building conversion, UAlbany is collecting photos and memories from people who attended school or worked there.
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