I became concerned about building code issues with the proposed Milstein Hall project at Cornell after examining some schematic plans distributed by the new Dean. Specifically, the proposed building (actually an addition to Sibley and Rand Halls) seemed to be noncompliant with the NY State Building Code in several respects: blocking access to fresh air required for natural ventilation in Sibley and Rand Halls, and exceeding allowable limits for building area.
I subsequently discovered that the usual requirements for a fire wall between the addition and the existing buildings do not apply as a result of a peculiar amendment added to an old version of the NY State Building Code, even though Milstein Hall remains nonconforming under the current code. As no one seemed to be paying attention to my concerns (neither building department officials nor Cornell administrators), I provided some comments on building code issues as part of the City’s review of the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Cornell responded by addressing most of my concerns in the Final EIS, while simultaneously denying that my reasoning was correct. I therefore sent in some comments on their responses to my original comments.
I remain convinced that the college and university would be better off if they put the Milstein Hall project on hold. Putting this project on hold would in no way threaten accreditation, if the following actions are taken:
1. Complete the construction of ADA-compliant elevators in Sibley Hall; begin the construction of an ADA-compliant elevator in Rand Hall (already designed as part of the Milstein Hall project).
2. Temporarily relocate Fine Arts Library books from the E. Sibley Hall wings to the Dome (which can accommodate many more books) and the library annex. Reclaim this vacated space in E. Sibley for additional architecture program needs (studios, etc.).
After these relatively simple and inexpensive steps are taken, the university may consider a more rational and permanent solution to departmental, college, and university needs in a way consistent with economic conditions and fund-raising prospects. In my view, a reasonable solution would include the following steps:
1. Build a straight-foward and inexpensive addition behind Sibley Dome containing a new Fine Arts library, and additional program space for the college. Coordinate with the proposed parking structure.
2. After this addition is completed, the space under Sibley Dome can be renovated into a major university auditorium, as it once was, accessible from the arts quad.
3. Finally, the spaces in E. Sibley and Rand Hall can be upgraded with new mechanical systems and improvements in the building envelope.
These three steps would match all the important programmatic requirements currently imbedded within the Milstein Hall project, but at far lower cost, a more appropriate use of available resources, greater sensitivity to the historic structures in the area, and a reclamation of underutilized space in Sibley Hall. Such a plan would also finally improve conditions for the library, and for Rand and Sibley, all at lower cost than what is being proposed currently for only the Milstein Hall project.
However, other options — even options that modify the current OMA design for Milstein by reconsidering the cantilever, glass elevator, and glass auditorium — would remain possible under this scenario.