Throwing Fitz

The move to Fitzsimons was supposed to send CU's Health Sciences Center sailing into the 21st century. So why are so many doctors jumping ship?

According to Sladek, Chancellor Shore plans to meet with pharmacy faculty and address their concerns. "We have a policy of leaving no one behind and doing no harm in the move," Sladek says. "When the pharmacy people move to this campus, they will be provided the same amount of space, under the same criteria, as everyone else."

But Sladek acknowledges that the team approach to Fitzsimons means that the school's space will be "less contiguous" than it is on the existing campus. "There was never a plan to move schools as insular units in their own stand-alone buildings," he says. "Part of it is an issue of whether the School of Pharmacy can embrace the master plan of this campus."

Diamond insists that the uncertainties are clouding the future of his program, which hinges on attracting more talented researchers, not driving the existing ones away. "The raiders are knocking at our door, knowing we're in dire straits," he says. "I'm aware of four individuals who are being courted by other institutions. It took eighty years to get us in one building, and then we started to move up right away. So we're very concerned about what happens now."

New digs: The recently opened Research Complex 1 
at Fitzsimons replaces cramped space at the Health 
Sciences Center's Denver campus.
Anthony Camera
New digs: The recently opened Research Complex 1 at Fitzsimons replaces cramped space at the Health Sciences Center's Denver campus.

The stalwarts of the Denver Rotary Club are all agog as Tim Romani gives a rundown on the Fitzsimons move at a recent luncheon. He hails the new campus as "a true economic engine for this region," one that will "blow away the Mayo Clinic" when it's done. He describes the pending sale of the Denver campus as the best possible deal for the best possible price, "a true mixed-use redevelopment" that will add fresh housing, retail and commercial space, reintroduce a pedestrian-friendly street grid to Ninth Avenue, and decrease "human density" in the area substantially.

What's not to like?

Romani, the vice chancellor of planning and development who's spearheading the accelerated move, is a canny negotiator with considerable experience touting pricey new sports arenas, including the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field. This is his first medical-center redo, but he's persevered through the community-meeting grind like a pro.

He tells the Rotarians that most of the buildings on the Denver campus "aren't very adaptable" to reuse; the more you demolish, the more the land is worth. University Hospital will keep its Critical Care Tower and recently updated emergency room as part of a scaled-back primary-care facility, and some of the newer buildings -- the Biomedical Research Building, the School of Pharmacy, a parking garage -- will probably be reused. But the rest will face the wrecking ball when Shea Properties starts building an urban-infill community on the site, including 1,100 new condos, lofts, apartments and other residential units.

Shea has agreed to pay $35 million for the property. The first $15 million goes directly to the state's general fund, as part of the deal CU made to obtain the certificates of participation to build academic buildings at Fitzsimons. The rest is slated for environmental remediation at the site; if the clean-up costs less than $20 million, it's possible that the university might actually see some revenue from the sale of its campus. But many faculty members aren't counting on it.

Critics of the Fitzsimons move argue that it doesn't make good economic sense to unload the HSC's current infrastructure -- which still has some years of use in it -- at wrecking-ball prices, then mortgage the future on all-new buildings that cost far more per square foot. But ultimately, the debate is about much more than economics. For all its limitations, the Denver campus has advantages that will be difficult to replicate on the new campus, including its proximity to other major medical complexes and its own cramped scale, which generated a certain coziness. Tunnels and bridges made every corner of the enterprise readily accessible; students, professors, researchers and patients mingled freely.

The plan for Fitzsimons calls for distinct "zones" designated for research, education and clinical functions. On paper, at least, the zones have some overlap, but the reality is a sprawling expanse that will require some ingenuity from a researcher who, for example, might want to shuttle a cart of tissue samples swiftly from the hospital to a research lab. Initial plans to build tunnels and bridges similar to those of the Denver campus were quickly abandoned as too expensive.

"Students will be in one place, faculty in another," says Freed. "Except for grad students working in labs, there will be little interaction. Those of us involved early on in the planning were chagrined to learn that this wasn't an integrated plan."

Sladek points out the proximity of the new hospital to Research Complex 1 and the planned new academic buildings, all situated within a quarter-mile of each other in the nexus of the overlapping zones. "I like coziness as well, but that's not a real issue," he insists. "This is now a 400-acre campus, half of which is the Health Sciences Center. Yes, it means you walk a little. But Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the nation, and there's a reason for it. This same faculty will spend their weekends hiking 14,000-foot peaks and think nothing of it."

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