Old research center may not become dorm

Joel Sawyer

High construction and maintenance costs might scuttle plans to renovate an East Bank campus landmark into student housing, University officials say.
Plans to renovate the 73-year-old Mineral Resources Research Center into an apartment-style residence hall were discussed last week by the Board of Regents in Duluth. But few administrators or regents who reviewed those plans had anything good to say about the amount of money needed to make the project happen.
“It’s dead unless we can figure out how to bring the costs down,” said JoAnne Jackson, the University’s senior vice president of Finance and Operations, who recommended scrapping the plan.
Costs for converting the building into a 72-unit apartment complex could run as high as $9.5 million, with $600,000 of that sum slated for environmental cleanup. The high overall cost estimates are unacceptable to many.
“I’m a strong advocate of student housing on campus, and I’m not ready to rule (renovation) out yet,” Regent William Peterson said last week. “However, we do have to look at the bottom line.”
The building, which has been vacant since 1991, would have four new floors built, elevators and rest rooms installed, and would need massive exterior and interior rehabilitation.
According to the plan, the University would face a significant financial burden if the building was renovated. Although rent for the 135 residents would be expensive — averaging about $425 a month — the income generated by that rent wouldn’t cover the building’s upkeep and annual operating expenses.
The University estimates it would cost more than $1.1 million each year to operate the building and make payments on the 30-year loan needed for the renovation. Rent for the building would only account for about $640,000 of that cost. The rest would be generated by a 4 percent rent hike on the other 4,500 campus residence hall bed spaces next year.
“It already costs too much to live on campus,” said Regent Jessica Phillips, chairwoman of the board’s facilities committee. Phillips said she prefers keeping rents within the means of most students to attract them to live on campus.
Rent in Roy Wilkins Hall, the only other University housing unit that offers similar apartment-style living, averages about $400 a month. Most residence hall rooms rent for $822 a quarter or about $325 a month.
Some regents have also questioned why it costs significantly more to build residence halls on the Twin Cities campus than it does on other campuses, such as Duluth.
The cost to build a bed space in the renovated center would be about $65,000, compared to about $20,000 in Duluth for similar housing.
“(The administration) is very uncomfortable that this cost per bed is what it is,” Jackson said.
But there are reasons for the cost differential, said Linda McCracken-Hunt, director of the University architect’s office.
McCracken-Hunt noted that housing on the Twin Cities campus is constructed in concrete and brick and will last longer than the wood-frame, aluminum siding-sheathed structures found in Duluth. The newer buildings on the Twin Cities campus also house fewer people and include amenities such as air conditioning, which other coordinated campus housing units do not have.
“We don’t want to build cheaply,” Phillips said, “but we want to see more affordable housing on campus.”
If a way to reduce costs isn’t found or administrators cannot persuade regents to accept the cost of the proposed project at the board’s meetings in June, then the school would likely pursue other student housing options.
Those options include renovating the Science Classroom Building across from the Weisman Art Museum into housing, or constructing new residence halls behind Coffman Memorial Union after the East River Road Parking Ramp is torn down later this year.
The latter option is more likely. The school’s master architectural and landscaping plans call for the area behind Coffman to be developed into a mall with student housing flanking the green space down to the Mississippi River flats.
The University’s department of Housing and Residential Life said it would like to add about 500 more bed spaces to campus to make up for what has been a dearth of student housing the last few years.
Last fall, more than 250 students were temporarily housed in residence hall lounges until living spaces could be found.
If the research center building is not renovated into a residence hall, it could be turned into office or classroom space, but would not be torn down. The building is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.