Coffman’s planned face-lift aims to improve its popularity with students

by Jessica Steeno

Sometime in the past generation, Coffman Memorial Union changed from a bustling center of campus life into a relatively sleepy outpost on the periphery of most students’ lives.
University administrators hope to change that by renovating Coffman, bringing more retail food chains and stores to the union and making some spatial and structural changes — many to comply with building codes. The renovations will begin in summer 1998.
Coffman Union’s Board of Governors will host the third in a series of open forums about Coffman’s future today; two more forums will take place in January. Students at the forums are invited to discuss some preliminary layout proposals. The layouts will probably change before the final architectural plans are made.
The renovations are now in the early planning stages, though the board has been questioning students and consulting with architectural firms regarding the renovations since 1992. The union was last renovated in 1974, the only major change since the structure’s construction in 1939.
The union is suffering because few students use its facilities. A study done last year showed that about 29.5 percent of the Minneapolis student population goes through Coffman each day. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that number is about 41.6 percent. The number of students who use the union here has also dipped since the early 1980s when 16,000 people used the union on an average day, compared to the 10,000 a day who use it now.
“I would love to double our current figures and get 20,000 people in here a day,” said Maggie Towle, director of Coffman Union.
The renovations will cost an estimated $40 million, Towle said. The funding for the project will come from the rent retail tenants would pay, and student services fees. Renovation will probably take about two years if current tenants relocate and the union closes during construction.
The board consists of 14 students, five faculty members, and staff and administration members who set overall goals for the union and approve the union’s budget and policies. It hopes to cater to students’ interests with the renovations.
Union-wide changes will include installing air conditioning in the union and adding Ethernet connections to many of the study spaces.
The proposed changes would leave the union’s basement area essentially unchanged, giving some additional space to The Studio, a center for mini-courses offered on subjects ranging from pottery to aromatherapy. The Studio expressed a need for additional classroom space because of the popularity of its courses.
The board also hopes to lengthen the operating hours of the Whole, the union’s nightclub, so that it could be open even when no performances are scheduled. The unused dance floor would serve as an additional study area.
The ground floor will continue to serve food, but the board hopes to turn it into a commercial food court, similar to those found in shopping malls.
The first floor will be the center of the major changes to the union, adding retail store space, including a large space for a new retail bookstore that may include a coffee stand. Union officials have not decided what kinds of stores would occupy the other retail spaces. A music store, a University souvenir shop and an art gallery have been discussed by the board.
“I’d like to see some stores with a little more variety of stuff, like some CDs or some movies, or maybe an office supply store,” said Nick Kerzman, a chemical engineering freshman who said he uses the union about twice a week.
Retail space is not a new idea in student unions. The union currently devotes 4,500 of its 240,000 square feet to retail space. At other institutions, student unions average 10,500 square feet of retail space.
A new entrance would be added to the first floor, in the center of the current glass front. The two side staircases would be eliminated in favor of one central staircase.
The first floor lounge area would also be remodeled, opening space to look down upon the ground floor.
Towle said the students she has spoken with want to keep the relaxed atmosphere that currently exists on the first floor.
“There is a real strong sentiment from students to keep the couches because they like a place to sleep,” she said. “I battle the administration that says, ‘We don’t like seeing students sleeping in the student union.’ But a lot of students said, ‘Our favorite thing is to come over here and lay on the couch, take a nap.’ So I think that’s something we’re really going to be thinking about, how we can incorporate space for quiet lounge areas.”
Union patrons also said they would like more places to study and meet with friends.
“I’d like a more homey common area,” said Erik Butz, a member of the counsel of religious advisers with the Campus Crusade for Christ. Butz said he comes to the union three or four days a week. “More coffee shop-ish type of stuff is what I’m thinking. More hangout places, more quiet spots.”
Another lounge area would also be added on the first floor, with refreshments offered, and possibly a stage for live music. Towle said many students want alcoholic beverages to be served there, but current University policy does not allow alcohol on campus.
“We’re definitely open to (alcohol),” Towle said.
Andre Viktora, president of the Board of Governors, said the board is planning a trip to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to visit its union, where alcohol is currently served, to get an idea of what effect it has on the union.
The second floor, where student organizations and administration are now housed, would change as well.
Plans call for adding conference space for student organizations, and two common areas for student organizations to share. The larger student organizations, such as the Minnesota Student Association, now located on the second floor, would move to the third floor. These organizations would continue to pay rent to have their own separate offices.
The third and fourth floors would remain essentially the same, but the conference rooms currently housed there would be remodeled.
The board is also considering adding a computer lab to either the third floor or the basement.
Not everyone thinks Coffman should change, however. Pat McSherry, a non-degree-seeking student who attended the University in the 1970s, said he doesn’t think the renovations will attract more students.
“I can tell you what the social life was here in ’72,” he said. “I’ve seen the transition and it’s tragic. It was a much friendlier atmosphere in ’72. Coffman was much more crowded. Students regularly came down here for some sort of interchange. People are basically not coming here anymore.”
McSherry added that people don’t use Coffman like they once did because the social climate at the University has changed, and students prefer to spend their time off-campus. He also said the smoking ban may have driven smokers away from the union.
“(Renovation is) an attempt to mechanically change what can’t be changed mechanically,” he said. “It’s a problem with the people. They’re not coming here because they’re not social.”