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Cost of Knight Academic Center for Athletes Raises Concern

PORTLAND, Ore. — The University of Oregon academic center for athletes that opened in January, paid for entirely by benefactor Phil Knight, cost about twice as much per square foot as Portland’s priciest condo buildings, according to documents released to The Oregonian.

The John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes, named for the late UO alumnus and founding board member of Nike, cost $41.7 million.

That includes everything from permitting, design and construction to furniture — all but the land, which the university leased to Knight for $1 during construction.

That means the glass-encased, three-story, 37,000-square-foot structure cost an estimated $1,100 per square foot.

“That’s a fortune,” said Monte D. Haynes, a development broker who worked on a Class A office building in Lake Oswego. “I think anybody would tell you that’s a fortune.”

On Friday a spokeswoman at Nike, the company Knight co-founded, referred requests for comment to the university.

The Jaqua Center, dubbed the “jock box” by critics, has spurred controversy because of its opulence and exclusivity. Although it sits at a prominent entrance to campus, most of the building is off limits to non-athletes.

“Forty million dollars buys a lot of new faculty, reduced class sizes, better facilities for the rest of campus,” UO senate President Nathan Tublitz said. “It is a travesty to spend so much money for the benefit of such a small subset of students who already receive enormous perks.”

Oregon spokesman Phil Weiler responded that donors decide where to direct their funds.

“The building was a gift,” Weiler said. “When someone buys you a birthday present, you don’t ask them how much they spent for it.”

The center is one of several multimillion-dollar buildings and renovations Knight has donated to the university in recent decades, most of them to the athletic department. Often, such as in the case of an 80,000-square-foot football operations center Knight plans to build soon, the amount of the gift has been undisclosed.

The university on Friday released two documents that detailed the costs of the Jaqua Center, in response to a July 15 request for access to the records: a 17-page cost estimate by property and construction consultant Rider Levett Bucknall, and an e-mail from the university’s associate vice president for campus planning and real estate sent July 15 — the day the building’s ownership officially passed from Knight to the university.

The estimate included the consultant’s estimate for the building’s construction and landscaping: $29.8 million. That works out to about $805 per square foot, or roughly twice what the most expensive condominiums were selling for at the height of Portland’s real-estate boom. It’s also more than three times the cost per square foot of a top-grade office building in Lake Oswego, even coated in high-end finishings, Haynes said.

The Jaqua Center is unusual for a university building, with its white-oak floors, Italian-leather auditorium chairs, commissioned artwork, glass elevators and first-floor cafe with a circular gas fireplace.

According to UO’s cost estimates, it rivals or even surpasses the cost of other singular buildings.

The Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall that opened in Los Angeles in 2003 cost $935 per square foot; the Rem Koolhaas-designed main library in Seattle, opened in 2004, cost $273 per square foot.

The e-mail released Friday included items above the $30 million construction cost, “to reflect the unique circumstances of the Jaqua building.” Those items included $4.5 million for furniture and equipment, $4.5 million for design fees, $1.5 million for building permits and a $1.5 million construction-costs contingency.

The summary aimed to generate an estimated total cost of the building, apparently for accounting and insurance purposes, Weiler said. It’s not clear whether university officials asked Knight how much the Jaqua Center cost.

Supporters have praised Knight for funding the transformation of Oregon’s athletic facilities into some of the nation’s most impressive and advanced, particularly during an era of diminishing state funds for higher education. As with most gifts, the cost of operating and maintaining the building will be borne by the university.

Dr. Richard Lariviere, Oregon’s president for the past year, pledged greater transparency in the university’s record-keeping and dealings with the public in the wake of last spring’s news that former athletic director Mike Bellotti received a $3 million severance package despite not having a written contract. In that case, requests from several journalists for copies of Bellotti’s contract — dating back many months — had been ignored by university officials.

Lariviere’s Office of Public Records appears to be having an impact. While previous requests for records sometimes were met with months-long delays or request for fees in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, the request that produced Friday’s documents was filled in just more than three weeks, for free. 

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