The dream is laid out in a YouTube video with glossy, computer-generated special effects. There are shiny, futuristic buildings with swirling retractable roofs. A glittering lake flanked by low-lying dorms. At the entrance to it all, a tall spire that casts shadows like a sundial.
This is world renowned architect Santiago Calatrava's ambitious and imaginative design for USF Polytechnic's new campus off Interstate 4, a site that until recently has been home to bulls, muck and mosquitoes.
As it pursues a bid for independence, the Lakeland campus is moving full speed ahead to remake itself into a "destination."
Marshall Goodman, USF Poly's leader, was nearly delirious when Calatrava was chosen to re-imagine his little-known school two years ago.
"We intend to build a masterpiece by the greatest architect of this century," he gushed.
But big visions don't come cheap. Fees for Calatrava's firm, which has designed stadiums, bridges and rail stations worldwide, is $7.44 million. The YouTube video alone cost USF $140,000.
The design of Calatrava's signature structure at USF Poly, the Science and Technology building, is still being tweaked. It won't be unveiled to the public until late this year, perhaps during a November fundraiser on the site.
But it is already 36 percent bigger than originally planned. And while school officials say the cost will be less than comparable facilities on other campuses, statewide data suggest otherwise.
In all, USF Poly officials estimate it will take $90 million to $100 million to build the initial structure and prepare the site for future construction. And already there's a budget shortfall, the head of construction acknowledged last week.
There is enough money for the first building, but not enough to complete the campus infrastructure, as had been hoped.
The board that oversees Florida's 11 public universities meets next month to consider USF Poly's bid for independence. But the question remains: Where's the money going to come from for a brand-new university?
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Calatrava's first project in the southeastern United States promises to be a stunner.
The massive structure of concrete, steel and glass set to rise on the south side of I-4 will be nearly two football fields long and two stories high. Its soaring atrium is expected to glow like a beacon at night. A set of overhead "wings," up to 100 feet long, will open and close as the sun moves though the sky.
"It will be dynamite," said Gene Engle, head of the USF Poly board. He has seen the design and fears it may cause wrecks among rubber-neckers along I-4.
A native of Spain, Calatrava is known for bold architectural statements. His design for the Milwaukee Art Museum incorporated a huge winglike sunscreen that is raised and lowered to control temperature and light. A model of a different wing arrangement planned for Lakeland is now undergoing wind tunnel tests.
In addition to their novelty, Calatrava's projects are legendary for going over budget. In New York City, his plans for a bird-like, glass-and-steel transit hub at the World Trade Center site were $2.2 billion when announced in 2003. Now the station, to be completed in 2014, is expected to top $3.8 billion, a 70 percent overrun. And last month, Calatrava withdrew from the job of expanding the Denver airport, citing insufficient funding after the budget was cut to $500 million from $650 million.
Calatrava's spokeswoman said he was out of the country and unable to comment.
USF Poly officials say safeguards are in place to prevent cost overruns on their project. Before construction begins, the school will get a guaranteed maximum price from its contractor, ensuring it will not be on the hook for any unforeseen expenses, said Alice Murray, head of campus planning and facilities at USF Poly.
While Calatrava's design for the first building is spectacular, Murray said, it is very simple in design and repetitive in elements.
"That makes the cost of construction much more reasonable," she said in August. "At this point, our cost per square foot is well below many other state buildings."
The science and technology building, which will include teaching and research labs, as well as less expensive classrooms and offices, will cost $375 per gross square foot. Murray said that includes the expense of developing on a "greenfield" site, rather than an established campus, as well as the cost of technology like solar power that will pay off in the long run.
But comparing USF Poly's cost estimate with similar facilities planned at other state universities indicates that the science and technology building will be on the high side. Only three similar planned projects in the university system are estimated to exceed USF Poly's $375 per square foot cost, while most come in well below that figure. On the USF campus in Tampa, a building that will be primarily expensive research labs is estimated to cost just $310 per gross square foot.
Those are only estimates submitted for state funding requests and could change. Indeed, USF Poly's submission said the Science and technology building would be 117,000 gross square feet and have a construction cost of $55.3 million.
Both numbers have grown: The building will now be about 160,000 gross square feet, including hallways and the soaring atrium. Its construction cost is now $60 million.
In addition, it will cost $30 million to $40 million more in infrastructure expenses and fees to complete USF Poly's first phase.
Construction of the science and technology building is now slated to begin in January, with completion by the end of 2013.
Any campus development beyond that awaits more funding.
"It would make the most sense if we could afford to put all the infrastructure in up front," Murray said. "But we know we can't do it all."
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To realize such big dreams, USF Poly has had the help of a powerful ally in Tallahassee. This year state Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Republican from Polk County who is chairman of the Budget Committee, made sure funding was approved for construction to begin on the campus. It was the only university construction money to escape Gov. Rick Scott's veto.
To realize the rest of Calatrava's master plan, USF Poly's board is trying to get creative. School officials are talking with an investment group in Miami about building a 120-bed dorm under a lease-back arrangement, with student fees repaying the financial partners over 30 years. Although similar agreements have been used to build residential halls at other Florida campuses, USF has never had such an arrangement. Nor has Mantra LLP, the partnership chosen to work with USF Poly, ever completed such a project, according to its website.
Goodman, the USF Poly leader, also wants the campus' first residents to have a dining hall and activity center, and so far about $10.5 million in private donations has been set aside for that purpose. But the so-called wellness center is expected to cost more than double that amount.
Plans for both projects are on hold pending the decision by the state's Board of Governors on the school's status.
Despite uncertainties over its future, supporters of USF Poly are planning a big fundraiser on the site on Nov. 18. The black tie affair, to be held in a tent under the stars, will raise scholarship money for the school's first freshman class.
Among the co-hosts is Alexander's wife, Cindy.
Though USF Poly executives have lavished thanks on the legislator, who will leave office at the end of next year, they have been unsuccessful so far in memorializing him on the new campus.
When partygoers trek to the campus, they'll travel along the new Research Way. One name suggested but rejected for the main campus artery: Alexander Way.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@ sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.