Ensuring Union’s Future: Revitalizing Our Campus
Welcome to the campus renovations resource web page for Union Theological Seminary. Here you will find documents that explain and provide context for the current Facilities Plan to preserve and reinvigorate Union’s physical campus.
Board members and senior staff continue the process of considering our facilities options and renovations proposals, and we want the Union community to be aware and up to date about these options and proposals.
We will continue to update the website with new information as we have it, so please come back to this page for the latest news on the project. On this web page you will find the following:
- Five Years of Facilities Planning
- Inherited Constraints
- Considering Union’s Options
- Status of Union’s Facilities Plan
- Additional Information
The Board believes we have a promising proposal before us, using our real estate development “air rights” to generate funds for needed renovations. After a sustained process of careful consideration, Board members agree that there are no options other than the use of our air rights to ensure Union’s long-term survival. A concurrent Board discussion is also taking place regarding the sale of McGiffert Hall to meet our financial goals for campus renovation, and when further information about that transaction becomes available, the Union community will be notified.
At present, discussions are in progress with a developer, and as they advance, we continue to welcome input from the Union community. As responsible stewards of the institution, the Board and senior staff are very aware that the decisions we make now will have major implications for our great seminary not only for the next several years, but for many, many decades to come.
In addition to providing information online, the Board and senior administration remain committed to finding community-wide, face-to-face opportunities for the Union community to share information and to hear directly from you. To facilitate this, click on the link at the bottom of this page and fill out the feedback form. Your thoughts are welcome.
Five Years of Facilities Planning
Five Years of Facilities Planning
In 2011, Union’s Board of Trustees approved a new strategic plan, A Stronger, Global Union, which instituted a new trustee-led Master Plan Committee designed to develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing Union’s facilities needs. Since its inception, the Committee was guided by two core affirmations. First, the physical plant of Union had reached such a state of disrepair that nothing less than a total campus renovation would be effective, and that a piecemeal approach to repairs was no longer effective. Second, the Committee affirmed the strongly positive direction the seminary was moving with respect to its academic program and made the decision to not jeopardize student scholarships and faculty support by using the endowment to fund repairs.
In 2014, the Board of Trustees approved its second strategic plan, Jubilee Strategic Plan, that reaffirms the work of the Master Plan Committee and strengthens even further Union’s commitment to a strong academic program. At the center of the plan is a commitment to providing ever-greater economic access to a Union degree and to expanding even further our social justice, inter-religious, church-engaged, globally active, and intellectually rigorous education.
Since it began in 2011, the Master Plan Committee has included representatives from across the Union community. In recent months the process has become confidential as the Committee entered the last stage of negotiations, in accordance with best practices of confidentiality necessitated by contract negotiations. Now, five years after beginning its work, the Committee has formulated a plan of action that it believes embodies its two core affirmations: stay mission-focused and renovate the entire campus. That plan is the result of many hours of consultation with key real estate, legal, and financial advisors from New York City, and takes into account multiple surveys, community conversations, and annual updates with faculty, students, staff, and alumni/ae. The process of assessing Union’s options has been exhaustive and the attention to the many details of Union’s assets and liabilities has been constant.
The vision behind the current Master Plan is comprehensive, powerful and transformative:
- Renovate the entire campus (HVAC, plumbing, electric), making it accessible and green
- Address affordable housing needs in our neighborhood
- Modernize student dorms
- Create new faculty housing to be located in the new building at the north end of courtyard
- Create private residences on the upper floors, which will have a separate entrance and therefore allow Union to maintain the internal integrity of our courtyard-centered campus
- Build modern, “smart” classrooms
- Increase scholarship aid for students
Union’s Board, including many alumni/ae Trustees, recognizes that a reinvigorated campus is essential to fulfilling Union’s mission-based vision and to continuing to attract the finest students and faculty for the next hundred years. The Board has also recognized, from the start of this process, that we are not alone. Many historic religious, academic, and charitable institutions in New York and beyond are facing similar challenges and, like Union, are searching for innovative solutions to sustain aging campuses while having a global and local impact.
The Board looks forward to further community conversations about these important matters and to working together to secure a strong and healthy future.
A Statement on Union's Facilities
December 17, 2015
A Statement on Preserving Union’s Facilities
To The Union Community,
I would like to update you about our plan to revitalize Union’s campus. I know it is of great interest to all, and I thought it would be helpful to explain the basic facts about our plan as it stands now. Many of you have already heard this information in the several community presentations for students and alums I have shared over the past several months, including discussions with alums at the AAR Annual Meeting last month. Of course, I will continue to update you as we have further information.
Today’s Vibrant Union
Union now stands in a strong position, both financially and programmatically. We are excited about our future, and for good reason. Our enrollment remains strong, our faculty continues to be without peer, and our educational offerings are creatively expanding to meet the challenges of the day. You can feel that vitality in our halls, dorms, and classrooms, in the engaged, lively voices of our students, our Union Fellows, our excellent faculty, and the many world-renowned scholars who seek us out for theological conversation. Moreover, to support this work, we continue to be blessed with a healthy endowment and a balanced operating budget. For the past eight years, our fundraising has been robust, and we continue to make the Jackson-Mitchell Chair our top funding priority.
As responsible stewards of the Seminary, the Board of Trustees and senior managers have explored numerous options to sustain Union’s current renaissance and preserve the Seminary into the next century as a vital force for doing good in Morningside Heights, Harlem, New York City, the nation and around the world. We will continue to be a cornerstone institution in our neighborhood and globally.
The Urgency to Take Action
You might ask, “Why now?”
We are very concerned about the condition of our facilities, which are 100 years old. The cost to renovate and maintain city regulatory compliance of our buildings, three of which are designated landmarks, is currently estimated to be $150 million. This expense will only grow over time as our buildings continue to age and need restoration. The scaffolding now surrounding portions of our exterior wall testifies loudly to this need.
The expense of maintaining our campus piecemeal is draining important funds that should be used to support our primary mission of education.
In addition, reaching the global community requires facilities that take full advantage of technology while providing onsite programming to attract our local community.
We realize that we are not alone. Many historic religious, academic, and charitable institutions are facing similar challenges and are searching for innovative solutions to sustain aging campuses that will reduce operating costs, while allowing the institutions to have global and local impact.
While we are in the early stages of a campaign to raise funds for student scholarships, faculty support, innovative programming, and facilities, we have come to realize that we must use every tool at our disposal to generate the essential funds for the continued renaissance of Union.
Preserving Union for the Next 100 Years
In 2014, the Board of Trustees approved our new Jubilee Strategic Plan, which provides a framework for Union’s future growth. At the center of the plan is our commitment to providing ever-greater economic access to a Union degree and to expanding even further our social justice, inter-religious, church-engaged, and intellectually rigorous education. It also includes continuing our now four-year process of developing a comprehensive plan to address our facilities needs, our Master Plan. The process has been a collaborative one, at various stages drawing students, staff, faculty, and alumni/ae in conversations about campus needs through surveys, committee work, annual updates, and community conversations. We continue to be thankful to everyone who has participated thus far and look forward to your ongoing involvement.
We have had the active and close participation of our Board, including our many alumni/ae Trustees. As part of the Master Planning process, and in keeping with our devotion to our cherished seminary, the Board and senior managers recognize the need for the renewal of our campus. A reinvigorated campus is essential to fulfill the mission-based vision of continuing to attract the finest students and faculty for the next hundred years.
A Visionary, Yet Practical Plan
To generate the bulk of the funds we need to preserve our campus and ensure that Union remains at the forefront of theological education, we plan to use our development rights to help us safeguard Union’s long-term future.
With these development rights, we envision the creation of a beautiful, slender building that is visually in keeping with the neighborhood and that is set on the northeast end of the quad. We want our newest building to feel like it has always been part of the current campus. We chose this location after thorough analyses showed that this was the best, and only, suitable site.
We are excited about the visionary, proactive, and practical plan that we have developed because it will sensitively achieve many institutional goals that matter to all of us. The Master Plan will:
- Renovate the entire campus, making it accessible and green
- Include a component that addresses affordable housing needs in our neighborhood (We are currently working out the details of this aspect of the plan and look forward to sharing them soon)
- Modernize student dorms
- Create new faculty housing to be located at the base of the new building
- Create private residences on the upper floors, which will have a separate entrance and therefore allow Union to maintain the internal integrity of our courtyard-centered-campus
- Build modern “smart” classrooms
- Increase scholarships
Since announcing our plan, we have heard from many voices in our community, both critical and supportive; and in the past month, we have hosted open conversations with students, faculty and staff.
We continue to proceed with a deep sense of mission, faith, and sensitivity to the entire community that embodies our proud motto: Where faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice.
I look forward to keeping you updated as this process progresses.
Rev. Dr. Serene Jones
Johnston Family Chair for Religion and Democracy
Union Theological Seminary
108 Year-Old Buildings
Union’s campus, an assemblage of late Gothic revival buildings by architects Allen & Collins, dates back to 1908. The buildings, some of which were added over time, are distinctive in style and their beauty testifies to the seriousness and import of Union’s educational enterprise. But the buildings were built for a world now a hundred years behind us and for students and faculty with different needs and expectations than we have today. Renovation and change are not new to Union’s campus, which has undergone changes over time, and the time to change is upon us once again. The current facilities plan will provide us, we believe, with a much-needed, state-of-the-art learning environment.
Union’s Morningside Campus picture
Landmarked UTS, Burke, Auburn, Dickinson
Three Landmarked Structures
On November 15, 1967, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) of the City of New York identified Brown Tower, James Tower and James Memorial Chapel as landmarked structures under Chapter 8-A of the Administrative Code of the City of New York. The same three buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 23, 1980. According to LPC stipulation, any external alterations of any of these three buildings need to be approved by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Alterations would also need to be consistent with federal and state preservation policies and guidelines. For example, all plans would need to be shared with the New York’s State Preservation Office (SHPO). The remaining buildings on Union’s campus are not landmarked.
Columbia University Leases
In 2002, Union negotiated long-term leases with Columbia University on three campus buildings: Dickinson Hall, Knox Hall and the Burke Library. These leases bring income to Union every year and are a key part of our operating budget. Because of the leases, however, these buildings are not considered part of the interior renovation plan.
Buildings Leased to Columbia University, diagram
Escalating Infrastructure Decay
The buildings that house our vibrant academic and campus life are marked by increasing levels of infrastructure decay. Windows need to be replaced and updated, and chronic plumbing issues pose a challenge to facilities staff, as do electrical and heating and cooling systems. All of these systems require a complete overhaul. While many of these issues, happily, are not apparent to the casual visitor to campus, the impact on the lives of those who live on campus is felt daily and is certain to only increase over time.
Infrastructure decay, pictures
Lack of Accessibility
Union, in its desire to become increasingly accessible to all students and community members, wants to make its campus physically accessible. As we have discovered, this is one of the most expensive items on the list of improvements because it requires not only more and upgraded elevators but also the realignment of floors that do not line up with each other (as a result of the various stages of the construction of Union’s campus).
Local Law 11 of 1998 — Increasing Costs
New York City’s Local Law 11 of 1998 is an ordinance that requires buildings of more than six stories to be inspected every five years in an effort to make all building façades safe for residents and passersby. During the inspections, unsafe conditions are documented and repairs are mandated on a timetable. In order to comply with the Façade Inspection Safety Program (FISP), owners of buildings higher than six stories must file, in response, a technical façade report with the Department of Buildings, delineating clear plans for addressing documented conditions.
Union, in compliance with this City code, is inspected every five years. On November 6, 2012, Zaskorski & Notaro Architects, AIA, LLP, submitted their regular five-year report on Union’s facades, the Cycle 7C Facade Inspection and Safety Program Report (FISP), to the Department of Buildings. After the filing, the City performed three additional inspections during the spring and summer 2013. Based on these inspections, the City identified three violations on the building, requiring the erection of sidewalk sheds, which remain in place even today.
Following these citations, Zaskorski & Notaro prepared a scope of work for Union and obtained bids from contractors aimed at achieving a comprehensive repair. During the first stage of repair work, we undertook a “Band-Aid” approach to ensure that in the short term we were in compliance with City code. We were told at the time, however, that if we did not undertake a “deeper fix” we would continue to be cited every five years, until a comprehensive repair was undertaken. We were also told that over time, if a comprehensive repair was not undertaken, the cost of repairs would steadily increase. These costs could total $40-50 million over a ten-year period by modest estimates. Our next inspection is in November 2017.
For more information on Local Law 11, go to: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dob/html/about/faq1.shtml#L1
Current Buildings Are Not Green
Not surprisingly, Union’s 108-year-old buildings are not energy efficient, resulting in high operation and maintenance costs. Electric, steam heat, natural gas, and water are used and even wasted as a result. In our 2014 Strategic Plan, making Union greener is a major goal. Moreover, as Union continues to strengthen its programming around climate change and sustainability, we need to embody in our own buildings what we encourage others to embody in their lives, namely, responsible care for the earth. Central to achieving that sustainability is a complete overhaul of our own energy-dependent systems.
$125 Million Cost to Renovate
Given these various constraints and needs, the Board undertook a careful study of the cost of full repair. Our most recent estimate for a complete renovation of our campus places that cost at $125 million. Included in this cost are: complete exterior renovation, dormitory renovation, new faculty apartments, compliance of renovations with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), complete Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) renovation, Mechanical, Engineering, and Plumbing (MEP) overhaul, information technology upgrade, new kitchen, upgrade of offices, corridors, and renovated classrooms.
CONSIDERING UNION’S OPTIONS
If Union does not undertake a comprehensive renovation, we nonetheless need to begin repairs immediately to comply with Local Law 11, and to continue fixing broken pipes and electrical service issues. Given Union’s present budget for building repairs, it would be necessary to take money from our endowment for these renovations beginning in 2017. These costs will continue to escalate over time and according to our ten-year projections, the endowment funds that provide scholarship, faculty, and administrative funds would be cut in half in to cover these renovations. This would involve serious cuts to the operating budget and would severely diminish the quality of our academic programming. Moreover, these piecemeal repairs would be only temporary in nature, thus leaving the larger infrastructure issues looming before us.
Another option available to Union was to use its unrestricted endowment, an amount that now stands at about $56 million to do the bulk of the renovations all at once. (The endowment now stands at slightly over $100 million but over half of that amount has been restricted by donors for specific uses unrelated to buildings and therefore cannot be spent on the capital needs.) The Board quickly saw that this was not a viable option because first, there are not enough unrestricted funds to accomplish the needed renovations, and second, expending this level of endowment funds would result in draconian cuts to our annual operating budget resulting in drastic reductions in staff and faculty positions and salaries, and to student scholarships.
Change Mission and Dramatically Downsize
Another alternative considered by the Board was to move Union into a smaller segment of our present buildings or to another site and in that dramatically downsized space, reconceive the seminary’s mission as a non-residential, commuter school, a virtual seminary, or a think tank. These models would ensure that Union would no longer be able to recruit top-level faculty to live in New York City because affordable faculty housing would no longer be available and we would lose our national recruitment reach because of the unavailability of affordable student housing.
Raise $125 Million
In 2013, the Board undertook a comprehensive campaign feasibility study to determine if the seminary had the capacity in our donor base to raise significant funds for capital improvements to the campus. The study, which interviewed current and past Board members, alums, donors, senior staff and faculty, revealed that there is significant (and growing) interest in funding Union’s programs, faculty and students sufficient to mount a $25 million campaign, which is currently underway. The study also revealed that there is little donor interest in funding buildings. This is not new to Union. There is no history of major (over $500,000) capital gifts to Union since the 1950s. To grasp the sheer size of the fundraising needed, for example, note that if we totaled all the Annual Fund giving since 1965, that amount would not reach the $125 million needed to renovate. Accordingly, it became clear to the Board that fundraising alone would not be able to generate the funds that are needed to sustain Union for another century.
Find A Funding Partner
Over these past four years, Union has considered a number of possible partnerships that could provide funding for or share in the cost of renovations. In 2009 and 2011, we filed applications with the New York City Council for support to restore the spires on our landmarked James Chapel Tower. Both times our application did not succeed. In addition, we have reached out to partner institutions in the area to explore working together to find a solution and at this point, we have not been successful. No institutional neighbor has expressed interest in a market-rate purchase of our air rights or of any portion of our main campus.
Move: In Neighborhood
The Master Plan Committee (MPC) considered two different options with respect to moving. The first involved staying nearby, so that we could continue to enjoy our partnership with our educational and religious neighbors and stay close to our world-class Burke Theological Library. We determined not only was there no available site, but given that we had no partner ready to purchase our campus at market rate, we would not be able to generate anywhere near the funds needed to buy a new building.
Move: Out Of Neighborhood
Relocating Union elsewhere was also seriously considered by the MPC and the Board of Trustees. In order to determine whether this was a viable option, we had careful estimates calculated on how much it would cost Union to build a down-sized, semi-residential campus of 170,000 square feet elsewhere in the Metropolitan area. We determined this would cost an estimated $140 million. This figure includes the cost of land. Given that we do not have a market-rate purchaser of our current campus, we would not have the funds needed to provide quality living space to students and faculty. Moreover, moving away from Morningside Heights would also mean the loss of our library. Creating a theological library that meets our current expectations and accrediting standards with the Association of Theological Schools is cost prohibitive. A move would also greatly diminish our access to Morningside Heights higher education institutions and our long-term partner, The Riverside Church.
After concluding that none of these alternatives were viable, the MPC took steps to determine if there might be a market-rate developer who would purchase our air rights and in doing so, provide the funding necessary to stay in place and renovate. As a result of that process, the Board now has before it a proposal that envisions renovating the entire campus over a 3-5 year period. This requires Union to create agreements with companies in the New York real estate industry that allow us to realize high value from the sale of our air rights. According to the present proposal, the developer would construct a new building with private residences on the upper floors. Union would create and own new faculty housing at the base of the building. This proposal provides full funding for campus infrastructure renovation and financial resources to ensure Union’s future.
In addition to selling our air rights, the Board has also begun exploring the sale of McGiffert Hall, in order to garner the full amount of funding necessary for campus renovations. According to present calculations, the dormitories and faculty housing currently in McGiffert can be easily accommodated in a newly renovated main campus.
More details about this proposal can be found in the next section.
Affordable Housing in NYC
Since the beginning of the MPC’s planning process, the Board expressed a commitment to supporting the building of affordable housing in New York City and hopefully, in our own building. In fact, we chose the development partners that we are presently in conversation with precisely because of their long history of building good affordable housing in New York City. We were deeply disturbed and concerned, then, when our plans for including an affordable component in our building were suddenly disrupted this past summer.
At the state level, a major affordable housing tax abatement program that had been supporting affordable housing in New York City for years has ended. This action removed the means by which affordable housing was planned for the project. We are strongly opposed to this change and are working closely with our housing partners and city advocates to promote policies that support not just affordable but low-income housing in New York City. Additionally, we continue to talk to our proposed development partner about how affordable housing can be part of this project.
We have been advocating for the building of affordable housing. If the city, state, and federal governments had good policies in place, Union would have been able to have affordable components. As this project unfolds, it is important for students, faculty and staff to learn more about the affordable housing crisis facing New York today. It is a critical and crucial issue, especially for institutions like ours whose students, faculty, and staff are among those for whom housing throughout New York is becoming economically out of reach.
For more information about affordable housing in New York City, visit:
For more information about partial tax exemption for new multiple dwellings (421-a), visit:
Recent News Items
Tax Break to Spur NYC Housing Development Won’t Be Revived, New York Daily News, 02.08.2016
Deputy Mayor Floats Compromise on Affordable-Housing Plan, Crain’s New York, 02.08.2016
Looming End of Tax-Break Program Could Harm Mayor’s Housing Plan, New York Times 01.13.2016
Labor and Campus Renovation
Union Theological Seminary has been and continues to be a strong supporter of unionized labor, and we deeply respect the two labor unions presently on our campus. This support applies to New York City’s construction labor unions, as well. When it comes to building complex and multi-storied buildings in New York, many aspects of such construction are undertaken by New York’s construction unions. Given this, we are certain that these labor unions will have opportunities to participate in this project.
There are also a number of much smaller construction and subcontractor firms in New York City, many of them minority/women owned, that do specialty work and/or work on smaller projects. The City often encourages these firms because involving them assures that residents of New York City will be employed in the construction and that more revenues from the work will be returned directly to local neighborhoods. It is important to know that any of these companies that we might work with are companies as regulated with respect to wages and safety rules as are union firms.
Union Theological Seminary will have decision-making power over contracts for the campus renovation. However, in the case of the construction of the new facility, the decision for labor contracts would rest with the development partner.
At this point in our process, no decisions have been made about the exact proportion of unionized to non-unionized labor, but we at Union have made known our longstanding support for union labor. We also have a strong desire to, in some manner; support locally owned companies, especially when they offer specialty labor and distinct craft-skills needed in the renovation of older buildings.
Seminaries: Buildings and Budgets
Leaders at Union are keenly aware of the financial struggles of seminaries across North America, many of which must balance maintenance of aging buildings with larger programmatic efforts. A review of recent articles points to the challenges and complexities that other seminaries are facing.
Claremont Divinity School Explores Options Toward Financial Stability That May Include Relocation
Jewish Theological Seminary Taps Real Estate to Update Manhattan Campus, Wall Street Journal 01.31.2016
Two Lutheran Seminaries to Close and Reopen as New School, Washington Post 01.15.2016
Andover Newton Seminary to Sell Campus, The Christian Century 11.16.2015
Newton Seminary Plans to Scale Down Operations, Relocate, Boston Globe 11.12.2015
Historic Seminary [New Brunswick Theological Seminary] Leverages Land, Sheds Debt, In Trust Center for Theological Schools, Summer 2015
JTS Will Sell Undergraduate Dorms As Part Of Massive Renovation Project, Columbia Spectator 02.13.2015
Jewish Theological Seminary To Sell Dorms, Air Rights To Pay For Campus Modernization, New York Daily News 02.03.2015
Conservative Flagship To Finance Capital Improvement By Selling Dorms, Air Rights, JTA 01.30.2015
Chicago Seminary Rebirth A Sophisticated Mix Of Old, New, Chicago Tribune 11.23.2014
Tensions At Episcopal Church’s Oldest Seminary Reflect Larger Crisis In Future Of Theology Schools, Washington Post 09.30.2014
The Struggling Seminaries: Sudden, Deep Cuts At The Largest Lutheran Seminary Illustrate The Challenges Facing Theological Schools Across Denominations, Inside Higher Ed 03.29.2013
Seminaries Under Stress: Radical Changes Among Episcopal Institutions Point To Pressures On Traditional Residential Model, Inside Higher Ed 03.11.2008