BMCC Temporary Campus

New York, NY
City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, located just north of what became known as Ground Zero, lost a building and also use of its premises, co-opted for emergency government services. Without classroom space, BMCC also faced the possibility of losing its students and faculty.

BMCC plunged into creating a viable temporary campus. CUNY, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), Helpern Architects, and a string of committed consultants and contractors helped BMCC shift from a state of emergency to site selection, to moving into a new “trailer campus” at City College of New York. Working in lockstep, the temporary-campus team defied conventional wisdom, eclipsed standard procedures, researched and resolved every site condition and conflict, and developed a fully-functioning educational facility … in four months!

A combination of teamwork, professionalism, and generosity overcame the unexpected. CUNY Matters, the University’s newspaper, named the team “Trailer Heroes.” David Helpern observes that “We strongly believe in preparation and planning. In the case of BMCC’s temporary campus, however, spirit plus momentum equaled achievement.”

The winter semester began, right on schedule, at a new, 30,400-sf campus assem¬bled with 23 red modular classroom units, resting on 835 newly-poured Sonatube piers, connected by 14,000 sf of decks and ramps. Located in two clusters on two CCNY parking lots in upper Man¬hattan, this temporary installation – mostly computer classrooms – became a habitable, efficient, indefinitely-maintainable complex for 840 students and faculty.

Exceptional coordination was crucial and was, in fact, largely assigned to Helpern Architects. We began work¬ing even before our offices – within the restricted zone – were open to employees. Our “official” role was to do the master plan and design. We prepared the site survey and preliminary zoning analysis, and we also monitored manufacturing, construction, and installa¬tion activities. Seven days a week, a Helpern representative at the site resolved construction and design issues.

The Helpern project manager ran project meetings, which included up to 35 senior people empowered to sign off and expedite actions. Direct communication with related agency heads – the Department of Buildings, for instance – sped up the process, including permit negotiations with DEP, Landmarks, and DOB. Term contracts with professionals and pre-approved vendors sped up procurement of services and building materials.

The 58 modular units [23 structures, finally] were fabricated at the same time we designed the temporary campus. Moved six at a time after midnight, closing the George Washing¬ton Bridge, they were set on concrete block piers that had been placed a day before the units arrived. Because the site is rolling, each unit had to be set at its own height.

We also arranged for emergency diesel generators, fuel tanks, and a schedule of fuel delivery and maintenance; the resulting bid saved BMCC over $100,000. Plus, we coordinated Verizon’s work and “spelunked” for the fiber optic cable. All cables, in fact, had to be above ground but were finally encased in concrete. For further safety, the fire alarm subcontractor – without telephone landline connections until the end, and therefore no Fire Department signoff – maintained a fire watch until the security panel was activated.