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University of Minnesota Regents approve large-scale renovations for Pioneer Hall

The plan put aside nearly $105 million for the fixes that will take place through two academic years
Pioneer Hall, which does not currently hold up to many contemporary building codes, stands in the Super Block on the evening of Saturday Sept. 10, 2016.
Image by Maddy Fox
Pioneer Hall, which does not currently hold up to many contemporary building codes, stands in the Super Block on the evening of Saturday Sept. 10, 2016.

Pioneer Hall, the University of Minnesota’s oldest residence hall in the Superblock, is getting a costly facelift.

The University’s Board of Regents approved plans for the $104.5 million renovation by a 9-3 vote Friday after more than a year of debate over the proposed project.

The expansion of the outdated building — a dorm students often criticize — will bring it up to code while connecting Pioneer’s two wings with a central spine and increasing capacity. A new 850-seat dining facility to serve all of the Superblock’s 2,800 students will also be included.

The transformation will be paid for by an increase in student housing fees, which are expected to climb more than last year’s 3.6 percent increase due to the project, bringing University room and board rates closer to the middle of the Big Ten.

Money for University housing can’t come from state appropriations or the school’s general fund.

James Farnsworth, a freshman Pioneer Hall resident, said he thinks the renovation will be worth the increase in housing fees.

“People are paying a lot of money to be here, and there’s a certain level of expectations and regents should respond to that,” Farnsworth, who lives in the basement level of Pioneer, where one bathroom serves 16 people, said. “Compared to other dorms, I can’t even believe they’re at the same university.”

While Pioneer’s interior will be mostly gutted, its exterior will be preserved to retain the building’s character. The residence hall was completed in 1932.

The plan’s cost rose $5.5 million from previous estimates.

The current plan will force other Superblock residents to walk outside to eat in Pioneer, but University President Eric Kaler said Friday that the school would consider adding indoor walkways.

Pioneer will close for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. The University will make up for the lost 693 beds by converting Roy Wilkins Hall to freshman dorm-style housing and by leasing private, off-campus apartments.

Regents Michael Hsu, Thomas Devine and Darrin Rosha voted against the option, saying that such a substantial amount of money should be saved for adding a greater number of beds.

Hsu said when the University raises room and board rates, private developers usually raise their rates in tandem.

“The University is a big part of the local market,” he said. “Developers are not only looking at each other, they’re looking at what the University does … any increase that we make, they’re likely to follow suit.”

But other regents said Pioneer’s renovations will be worth the costs.

“I’ve been a strong supporter of the Pioneer Hall project since 1990 when I had bats in my room and a tennis racket by my bed,” said Regent Laura Brod, a University graduate.

Regent Richard Beeson said the administration’s recommendation would keep the University from having to revisit the project later, despite the hefty price tag.

“I don’t like modest rehabs,” he said. “We’re not going to look back on this in 10 years and wish we had done it better.”

Regent Chair Dean Johnson said he expected some reservations with such a high sticker price on the project.

“Any time you have projects that are $100 million-plus, each regent takes it very, very seriously,” he said. “[The regents who voted against the plan] had very good reasons why they voted no … the bottom line for all of us is the student experience.”

While Pioneer Hall was renovated in 1977 and maintenance has continued since, no major work has been done in the past 15 years.

The residence hall doesn’t meet current building codes in several areas, is not handicapp-accessible and is in need of heating, ventilation and air conditioning integration, plumbing and electrical system replacement, bathroom renovation and more community study space.

Although freshman English literature major and Pioneer Hall resident Maggie Reese said she likes living in the antiquated dorm, she sees room for improvement.

“I like the sense of community here, and I like the proximity to my classes,” she said. “There’s no air conditioning or a functional elevator, and that made moving in pretty miserable.”

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