Coffman Union reaches its final stages

Josh Linehan

Back in February 1999, a story in The Minnesota Daily asked students to picture Coffman Union as a leaky tire.

For a while – being broke students, after all – they took the short-term approach, refilling the tire with air every morning. The problem was, it wasn’t air the union was leaking. Coffman Union oozed student services fees money, loosing approximately $1.8 million per year to fix things such as a rain-prone roof and bursting pipes.

In the end, the leaky tire carried University students to a fork in the road: either continue to pay the never-ending repair charges or cough up $45 million to replace the building.

The students chose the latter.

Nearly 50 percent over budget and two years late, Coffman Union will once again open its doors Jan. 22 for the students who bought it. The long and expensive path students have ridden on that leaky tire – and then on the rim – winds to its conclusion.

Taken together, the renovations will produce a student union virtually unrecognizable to any students who remember Coffman before it closed. Of course, any union would be an improvement for most students on campus.

“Most of the students right now don’t have any idea what it is like to have a student union,” said Maggie Towle, Twin Cities Student Unions’ director. “We’re confident students will be impressed by what they see.”

As a whole, Coffman is the centerpiece of the south mall development project, approved by the Board of Regents during the tenure of former President Mark Yudof, who dedicated his presidency to revamping the look of the campus.

The project aimed to reintroduce the Mississippi River into the campus aesthetic and offer an unobstructed view from the union to Northrop Mall. Also included in the south mall plan are the Riverbend Commons student housing facility and the new Washington Avenue pedestrian bridges.

The shiny bridges – designed to blend with the unique style of the Weisman Art Museum – were completed in September at a cost of $5 million.

When all is finished, the new construction – including Coffman Union – will give the East Bank new form and function. How Coffman ultimately cost $72 million is the other part of the story.

originally built in 1940, Coffman Union cost $2 million and quickly became an informal gathering place for the University’s 14,000 students.

The original building lasted until the mid-1970s, when it underwent large-scale renovations to accommodate the University’s burgeoning enrollment of approximately 40,000 students. That renovation – and its Day-Glo decor – would last until the mid-1990s. Then the fateful renovation, a process Towle has described as “cursed,” began.

Coffman faced myriad problems. The roof was crumbling and needed more than $1 million in repair. The lack of air conditioning had candy bars melting on the shelves during the summer and, more importantly left the building unable to draw summer conventions and meetings which are key to the union’s financial livelihood. Bursting pipes periodically drenched the building’s interior. Steam poured out of windows in the winter.

After the survey found students demanding more than Coffman offered, a proposal was drafted. Student members of the TCSU Board of Governors set out on a massive public relations campaign. It proved successful.

The renovation proposal was presented to the Student Services Fees Committee for funding beginning with the 1999-2000 school year. It called for $37.5 million in student money, augmented by $7.5 million from TCSU and $10.8 million from the University for a project total of $55.8 million.

The original proposal called for students to pay for the building with incremental fees, in order to fairly charge those who would remain on campus longer after completion to use the building more. The scheduled charge began at $26 per year, raising up to $95.50 the fourth year and holding at $91 per year thereafter. Towle said students have actually paid less than that because of increased enrollment.

The plan passed the fees committee and was submitted to the regents. In an effort to minimize the time the building would stand empty, a construction firm was hired to begin demolition at the same time. Coffman Union closed its doors Nov. 1, 1999. The long road wound on.

Fulfilling its obligations as a state-funded agency, the University requested proposal-soliciting bids on the job, due in May 2000. The deadline passed without any contractor bids. Suddenly, Coffman sat silent and gutted.

The deadline was extended until July and this time it received several bids. No contractor, however, was prepared to meet the University’s price, with the lowest bid coming in approximately $7 million over budget. According to regents’ records, those bids were rejected and “significant modifications in the scope of the project (were) needed to reduce costs.”

With the gutting nearly complete and no viable bid on the table, Coffman Union sat empty from July 2000 until January 2001. For more than six months, the project stalled.

While the building awaited construction, Eric Kruse, then-vice president for University Services, brought the regents a new idea. He proposed contracting the renovation using the design-build method of construction rather than the standard design-bid-build process which had failed with Coffman twice before.

In the design-build process, the owner works with a contractor who represents a team of architects, engineers and builders through every step of the construction process. In contrast, the design-bid-build process involves hiring an architect who designs a project for an owner who then offers the job of constructing the building to the lowest bidder.

The regents decided to try the design-build method. Ellerbe Becket architects would team with design-build firm Ryan Co. to renovate Coffman Union. This decision would have repercussions.

Meanwhile, as Ryan Co. finished gutting the building and began construction, problems soon followed. Near the end of July 2001, soil contaminated with coal tar – a normally harmless byproduct resulting from the carbonization of coal that can be dangerous if it seeps into ground water – was found under the old garage, which sat beneath the plaza in front of Coffman. Similar delays would occur later as workers encountered asbestos and arsenic during construction.

In November of the same year, Coffman officials went back to the regents and asked for more money for the building’s movie theater. In order to increase seating in the theater while maintaining the original structure of the building, the roof was raised 10 feet and the room was rotated 45 degrees at a cost of nearly $600,000. Regents were told the theater would push the project completion date back by two months.

As January 2001 drew near, the project was not yet finished. In fact, the biggest bump in the road still loomed on the horizon.

By May 2001, Ryan Co. and University officials appeared in front of the regents again, this time with a much bigger request. They asked for an additional $21 million for the project.

In presenting the request, Kruse – who has since left the University to form his own construction firm – said factors in the increased cost included greater-than-expected deterioration in the building, a redesign of food service concepts and a plan to incorporate three bookstores into one within the building. The regents approved the additional funds, but not without discussion “regarding the problems associated with the renovation of (Coffman Union) and how similar situations could be avoided in the future.”

The numerous cost overruns prompted criticism of the design-build method and the project as a whole.

“If it misses by that much, something’s wrong,” Regent Robert McNamara said at a regents’ retreat in August.

Still, with a budget of $72 million, Coffman Union was on track for completion until the Student Services Fees Committee met again.

in Feb. 2002, fees committee chairman Tim Lee came under fire from campus groups and other fees committee members for a secret meeting he held concerning the fees request by the TCSU Board of Governors.

Lee, a former chairman of a group called Students Against Fees Excess and president of Campus Libertarians, was outspoken in his criticism of funding for the Coffman project and sought to rally support for those views at the meeting. Word of the gathering leaked when Lee inadvertently sent an e-mail invitation to the meeting to the wrong committee member, who subsequently forwarded the message to the entire group.

No action was taken, though several committee members were vocal in their criticism of the process. Still, when the fees committee recommendations came out in March, TCSU funding was $7.3 million, approximately $1 million less than the requested amount.

Vice President for Campus Life and Vice Provost Robert Jones stepped in, upping TCSU’s request by roughly $780,000.

Chuck Hernick, this year’s president of the TCSU Board of Governors, said he was not worried about a similar move to block funding for the project.

“I’m less worried this year, because we’re actually delivering this year,” Hernick said.

when it finally opens at the beginning of spring semester, Coffman officials say Minnesota students will enjoy one of the finest student unions in the nation.

Before the renovation began, officials from the TCSU surveyed students regarding what they wanted from a student union. The old Coffman did not offer seven of the top 10 responses.

In fall 1998, students said they wanted more accessible parking, a centralized book store, a computer lab, a first-run movie theater, air conditioning, additional lounge space and food choices beyond UDS.

Given that list of demands, the new union fits the bill.

Coffman’s theater, originally offering 259 seats, now has 400, and officials said movie screenings will increase dramatically.

Three bookstores – including the East Bank and West Bank locations – will close and consolidate into one 45,000 square foot bookstore in Coffman’s basement. The St. Paul bookstore will remain open, and books for classes on the St. Paul campus will be available at both locations.

For all practical purposes, however, the union’s bookstore will not be functional until next fall. The East Bank and West Bank stores will maintain their inventory at their original sites until after the book rush during the first two weeks of the semester.

The January 2002 opening of Riverbend Commons boosted available parking in the area. And the new Coffman Union will be air conditioned.

Food choices will expand, and fast-food options such as Baja Tortilla Grill, Chick-Fil-A, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Starbucks will be available. Tenants will bear $12.5 million in construction costs, according to the revised budget passed by the Board of Regents in May 2001.

Most student groups with offices in Coffman Union before the renovation will be back, including most of the student cultural centers such as the Black Student Union, the Asian American Student Union and the Queer Student Cultural Center.

Other new services will include expanded event and conference center space, a post office and a Metro Transit office where students can purchase U-Pass bus cards. The U Card office will also relocate back to Coffman Union.

when the ribbon-cutting ceremony finishes Jan. 22, the strange Coffman road will near its end. But it will not be over. The U Card offices won’t have moved in, and all the student groups won’t be back. The bookstore won’t open until March 3, long after the beginning of the semester rush. And of course, as every college student knows, the bills will keep coming long after college is over.

Though the financial costs were high, Hernick said the worst thing about the troubled construction project is more intangible.

“The biggest loss was that there wasn’t a student union for three years. I don’t think you can overlook that,” he said.

Student group membership declined, he said, and the campus lost a sense of community.

Now, students paying the bills will have a union to point to. But for those set to leave soon – or who left during the construction – that long, orange-flagged journey will have to be enough.

Josh Linehan welcomes comments at [email protected]