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Work Begins on Contentious U. of C. Economics Building

By Sam Cholke | January 7, 2013 7:33am | Updated on January 8, 2013 6:24am

HYDE PARK — The University of Chicago has begun construction on the new home of the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, a four-year project that left administrators bruised from tussles with faculty and neighbors.

Construction crews are excavating new classroom space beneath the former Chicago Theological Seminary, which the university purchased in 2008.

The final building will link the two wings of the former seminary with a glass-fronted foyer. The existing alley will be rerouted to exit in the middle of the 5700 block of South Woodlawn Avenue.

Classroom space will be expanded by excavating beneath the two courtyards, a process that began this week, as heavy machinery rumbled outside the 85-year-old seminary.

The university also released new renderings from Ann Beha Architects showing a planned expansion that will extend into the former alley. The university plans to invest up to $75 million in the existing building.

The project was launched in 2008, and it has taken four years for the controversy surrounding plans for the seminary to subside.

In 2008, more than 200 faculty members signed a petition against the Milton Friedman Institute, saying the conservative economist’s name was too politically charged for a nonpartisan institute. The university convened the first faculty senate meeting in more than a decade and agreed to change it by adding Nobelist Gary Becker’s name to the institute.

As part of the purchase, the university agreed to move the Chicago Theological Seminary to a new home south of the Midway Plaisance, displacing a community garden in 2009 and angering Hyde Park gardeners.

Renovation of the old seminary required removing some of the stained glass windows, which landed the building on Preservation Chicago’s 2011 list of seven most endangered historic structures and placed the university in the cross hairs of preservationists.

The much-loved former Seminary Coop Bookstore also was moved from the building last November after celebrating 50 years in its basement space. The bookstore reopened across the street in late November.