Construction of the prestigious campus was abandoned after the costs kept increasing. The original budget of 40 million € was soon abandoned. When estimated costs reached 235 million € the housing company pulled the plug on the project because of urgent cash issues, leaving the already invested 66 million € of public money to rot away in the southern Dutch soil. All people involved in the decision making who had hoped for a photo of them standing next to world famous Santiago Calatrava before their prestigious campus, lost their jobs.
In case there was any doubt: Calatrava remained untouched, receiving all his money as if the campus had been completed. He stated he could not be blamed for the rise in costs that caused the fiasco. Of course not.
The Maastricht Campus affair has all the traits of a classic Calatrava disaster: costs that multiply the original budget, an enormous waste of public funds, decision makers that instead of obtaining glory lose their jobs and Santiago Calatrava as the only winner, cashing a large check of public money for another impossible project.
To understand what happened in Maastricht we need to go back to 1995. That year the Dutch government decided that social housing corporations would no longer receive any government funding. Instead housing corporations should be run more businesslike, developing more profitable projects with which costly social housing could be financed.
Servatius looks for projects to make a profit
One of the many housing corporations affected was Servatius in Maastricht. Where it had always focused on building affordable homes to meet the needs of society it all of a sudden needed to develop property to make a profit, something it had no experience with.
In 1999 the university of Maastricht expressed interest in developing a new, high profile campus to attract foreign students. Servatius´ president Leks Verzijlbergh was instantly inspired foreseeing a future of glamour and glory. He decided the campus needed a famous architect and hired Santiago Calatrava, who had developed he TGV railway station in neighboring city Liège that had taken 10 years to build and had cost 312 million €, double of the available budget. Verzijlbergh instantly knew this was the exact guy he needed so in 2000 he asked Calatrava to design a campus that would cost around 40 million €.
In 2004 it was officially announced Santiago Calatrava would be designing the new campus that would be built in the Randwyck neighborhood and would consist of a 300 meter long building housing student flats, apartments for university personnel, shops, offices, a sports complex and parking space. The costs of the project had in the meantime risen to 104 million €. The Campus Maastricht was to be completed by 2008.
Campus Maastricht was visualized in a fancy 3D presentation that starts out with the words Vision today, Future tomorrow. Little did they know how different that future would really be.
The project is stopped for a first time
With the total costs of the project rising, Calatrava´s campus attracted national attention. In 2006 minister Dekker ordered the project to stop as she did not believe building the sports hall and office space was part of the housing corporation´s core business.
Maybe the minister had forgotten that since 1995 it had been the government itself that was forcing housing corporations out of their core business by making them responsible for earning their own funds. One year later new minister Ella Vogelaar decided building the sports complex and the office space was no problem. After the financing structure has been changed she allowed Servatius to continue its plans even though the total costs were already budgeted at 130 million €.
The project is stopped again
With all political barriers out of the way building was finally started in 2008, the year that the campus should have been finished according to the first plans. 300 trees were cut and a sports complex demolished to allow for the foundations of the spectacular new campus to be laid. But again things did not go as planned. In the spring of 2009 Servatius president Leks Verzijlbergh was stripped of his powers because he had taken too many financial risks in the development of the campus plans. In the summer of that year building activities were halted and shortly after Tjeu Blommaert, professor of economics at Maastricht´s university, left the social housing company´s board of control after leading it for only nine weeks. Something was definitely wrong.
Blommaert publicly announced an explosive situation: Building the campus would costs 200 million € but no contract has been signed, leaving housing corporation Servatius liable for a large part of the 200 million €. Blommaert: “So far no contract has been signed with a client. It´s more adventuring than entrepreneuring.” According to Blommaert, senior members of the board of control were unwilling to accept time was running out before the Calatrava campus project would ruin the social housing corporation. The board members had enjoyed being part of such an ambitious project but were not willing to admit that in the meantime they had not been paying attention.
Even after Blommaert´s declaration board members at first refused to accept their mistakes. They finally stepped down because, in the words of one of them, board member Harry Fekkers: “The sudden change in the economic climate has made it clear that too many risks have been taken. This has happened under our supervision so we are accepting our responsibility.” “Accepting our responsibility” meant leaving the board, it did not mean board members were prepared to face any personal financial measures to make up for the huge losses they had caused.
Choosing Calatrava was a mistake
The costs of building the campus kept going up and were asteemed at 235 million € by November 2009 when Duco Stadig, who had been brought in as external supervisor to assess the project, concluded that choosing Calatrava as the architect had been an error. “If you are rich and have all this money in your wallet, it is something you can do. Very near in the City of Liège he has built a beautiful railway station but it has cost double of what was planned…” “This guy (Calatrava) makes very beautiful buildings, let´s be clear on that, but he has to be paid from the budget for a sports hall and some student rooms … and that does not match in size of project. If you want to build rooms for students and a sporting facility, then that is what you need to and you will just make it (money wise). Housing corporations don´t usually have much money. They have been over-ambitious.”
With the project dead the hunt for a culprit started. Basically two things had lead to the Maastricht campus disaster: the ever-rising costs (from 40 million € to more than 200 million €) and the disastrous organization structure of social housing company Servatius that allowed the project to snow-ball out of control. When Spainish newspaper La Vanguardia reported the city of Maastricht had stopped building the Calatrava campus because of its high costs, Calatrava studios´ Mike Pfisterer wrote to the newspaper:
“We would like to respond to the article “Maastricht stops building a Calatrava design because of its high cost” (12/XI/2009). On 11 November Santiago Calatrava´s studios were informed (first by the press and later by a representative of the housing corporation) that the building of the Maastricht Campus had been cancelled by Dutch housing corporation Servatius. The press release by Servatius indicates that in the last year the costs have risen by 35 million € which made the company decide to cancel the project. The press release associates the risen costs with a rise in the construction costs of the project. This is not correct. At the beginning of 2008 building costs were budgeted at 124 million €. A second independent report that was executed at Servatius request confirms that construction costs have not risen since that moment. In fact the only way Santiago Calatrava´s offices knew of the estimated costs by means of this report. Up till now Servatius has not asked us to revise the project to reduce costs even though we suggested to Servatius and to the city of Maastricht that we could look into means to save costs. No rise of the costs is related with extra added costs that we know of, nor can they have been caused by the offices of Santiago Calatrava and they can therefore only be seen as the direct result of bad project management by Servatius.” (translation by Thefullcalatrava)
The article was followed by a legal threat to Servatius by Calatrava, urging the housing corporation to release an official statement that Calatrava was not responsible for the risen costs (it is unclear if they meant the rise of 35 million € in 2008 or the rise from 40 million € to more than 200 million € for the whole project since Calatrava joined the project in 2000). Apparently intimidated by Calatrava´s threats, Servatius sent out a letter to Calatrava declaring that the risen costs of the project were not his fault. Instead, the costs that had so run out of hand were blamed on something unclear and abstract: According to Servatius costs had risen by 100 million € because of the financial construction. Who was responsible for this financial construction? How could a financial construction increase the costs of a project of initially 40 million by € 100 million €? Servatius´ declaration did not make sense.
One thing Servatius´ letter did clearly state is that the architect Calatrava was not to blame for the project´s failure. Calatrava therefore reasoned that if the project was cancelled because of other people´s mistakes, he should be paid the complete sum (10,25%) that he would have received if the campus had not been cancelled. Servatius did not agree, they believed Calatrava should only be paid for the work on the project that had actually been built. May 2011 a judge decided Calatrava was in the right and ordered Servatius to pay him another 4 million €. Here Calatrava was lucky in The Netherlands social housing corporations like Servatius are public offices. Most commercial property promoters would have gone bankrupt, leaving Calatrava without his money, but Servatius was allowed a loan of 100 million € of public funds to avoid this. 4 millions of this public money was directly transferred to Calatrava´s Swiss bank account.
Servatius should never have started the project
Calatrava may have gotten the financial retributions he wanted but the Maastricht campus disaster left Servatius struggling to avoid bankruptcy. By 2010 it was allowed an emergency loan of 100 million € from a Dutch national fund for social housing. It also had to sell 1800 social housing units to cover for the financial effects of the campus affair. The total loss by Servatius on the campus project was calculated in 2012 at 79,9 million €. This was far less than the 100 million € plus revenues of the sale of 1800 housing units. So why did Servatius need that much money in 2010? The reason is that, like most social housing corporations, Servatius was not making money. Instead of earning money to pay for social housing projects themselves, as the Dutch government had so intelligently decided in 1995, housing corporations were losing money. So even apart from the failed campus plans, Servatius was not a financially healthy organization. The obvious conclusion is president Verzijlbergh should never have embarked on the ambitious campus project in the first place. Until today Mr Verzijlbergh does not share this vision. He accuses the new Servatius board of a lack of vision.
Lousy decision makers are taken to court
Following the conclusion that the social housing corporation should never have planned such an expensive and high-risk project, the new Servatius board of control were looking for ways to claim 67 million € from former president Leks Verzijlbergh and eight members of the former board of control. Where often decision makers are allowed to walk away without receiving any personal punishment for their errors, Servatius have taken them to court.
Dutch minister of internal affairs Liesbeth Spies agreed that the responsible people should be taken to court. For this reason she explicitely forbode Servatius to reach an agreement with Verzijlbergh outside of court as she valued the case as an important precedent for similar cases in the future. By doing this she hoped at least something good would come from this affair. In 2013 new responsible minister Stef Blok revoked this decision and allowed for talks between Servatius and Verzijlbergh. In practice these talks have not lead to any results, the main reason being that former president Verzijlbergh does not have the millions that Servatius asks of him. For this reason he believes the whole juridicial procedure is a political showdown. He is right of course, it ìs a political process. One that aims to stop people like him from wasting large sums of public money. In November 2013 a judge declared Verzijlbergh guilty and ordered him to pay a compensation of 10 million €.
New plans for a new future
14 years after the University of Maastricht first expressed its desire for a new, modern campus it is left with nothing. But there´s a light at the end of the tunnel: Maastricht University, Servatius and the Municipality of Maastricht have reached agreement on the construction of a new University Sports Centre and a redesign of the existing campus. The foundations of the old Calatrava project will be covered by a meter of earth on which a sports hall will be built that looks like… well a sports hall.