Plans to revamp Coffman take shape

Heather Fors

It’s a meeting place, an eating place, a reading place and a greeting place. But Coffman Union is also a needing place.
Plans for Coffman’s renovations are finally under way as the upcoming reconstruction of the East River Road parking ramp gets started.
“That one has been pushed into the future quite consistently,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, associate vice president for the Office of Budget and Finance, in reference to renovation plans.
He said Coffman renovations have appeared on the capital budget for years, but for various reasons they never came to fruition.
Many local architects, upset because the original plans for the union were disregarded, have argued for Coffman’s demolition since its construction in 1939. But Maggie Towle, director of Coffman Union, said these plans have never been seriously considered.
Instead, blueprints replaced the wrecking ball when renovation plans began in 1992. The Coffman Union Board of Governors constantly consults students and architecture firms about various ideas.
But reconstruction plans have been discarded every year since 1996. Tim Busse, communications specialist for facilities management, said he hopes this year’s outcome will be different.
“It looks like it’s going to happen,” he said.
In preparation for starting construction, University officials are forming teams to meet with designers. They will create plans for the south Mall area projects.
With renovations and construction on the East River Road parking ramp, student housing and the Molecular and Cellular Biology building, officials say renovating the 59-year-old union is necessary for maintaining the area’s flow.
“We definitely want to maintain the integrity of the student union on the University campus,” Towle said.
The master plan, which is updated every few years, details visions for balancing the need for changing the appearance of campus while maintaining historic structures. Officials want to create more activity behind Coffman and a link to the river.
University President Mark Yudof said opening the University community to the Mississippi River and its parks is a priority.
Officials hope to open the path from North Mall on the Northrop side of Washington Avenue to the Mississippi River.
“I honestly think this might be the most beautiful sight in American college campuses as far as potential goes,” Yudof said.
Coffman’s interior also faces construction. Towle said officials hope to maintain the building’s general design while also bringing in more services for students.
A convenience store, a small bookstore, a coffee shop, more food services and an upscale but inexpensive hair salon are just some of the suggestions students have made.
She said students will have the same kinds of services offered now, but more upscaled — and without the feel of a shopping mall. To further open the building to the river, large windows and doors facing the Mississippi are also on the list of possibilities.
“And of course, we’re going to air-condition — there’s no question about that,” Towle said.
Officials said students will have many more opportunities to give input on Coffman renovations.