Union renovations steeped in historical planning

by Stacy Jo

Editor’s note: More than $400 million is earmarked to build and renovate numerous University facilities over the next several years, thanks to a 1998 capital budget windfall and private donations. This is the fifth in a 10-part series, ‘Reconstructing the U,’ detailing how the massive rejuvenation will affect every student, staff and faculty member in addition to reshaping the school’s physical appearance. Next Monday’s issue will explore the construction and renovation of several University sports facilities.

Over the course of an average Monday, hundreds of students lounge on Coffman Union’s aging couches, eat at the limited food outlets downstairs and vie for seats in the crowded dining area.
In addition to student overload, renovation planners are struggling with how to remain faithful to the original conception of the South Mall, which put grass and trees where the union now stands.
There are as many visions of Coffman’s future as there are planners; some want to see a more prominent south entrance, others foresee expanded retail and food services and still others envision an addition to the building.
Whatever the outcome, officials hope to cut the ribbon on the new facility by fall quarter in 2000, 60 years after it originally opened, said Maggie Towle, union director. Planners expect to have the majority of the renovations completed by that time.
Officials expect the union renovations to fall between $40 million and $50 million. While committees will first approach alumni and corporations to fund the project, planners expect to turn to the student services fees committee with a request for additional student dollars — beyond the fees students already pay to the union — to support the project.
With students likely to foot the bill, union officials say renovations to the student hub will result in a facility that appeals more to student interests than ever before.
“The key to Coffman … is that you have to be progressive,” said Cale L. Schultz, vice president for the Coffman Union Board of Governors. “Because of the pride I have and the pride others will have, it’s worth it.”
Ultimately, the level of funding Coffman officials get will determine the magnitude of changes to the union.
Presently, officials are working to determine the overall programming mix of the future union in order to determine the amount of space to allow for retail, student organizations, conference rooms and food service. Not only must they allocate space, but the types of retail and food service must be determined as well.
Opening up the river
Coffman Union officials want to adhere to University designer Cass Gilbert’s original plan for the University. Gilbert’s intention was for all of the buildings on Northrop Mall to face the Mississippi River.
With the positioning of the union, which stands with its front doors facing Northrop Auditorium, many say the University has turned its back on the river.
When the University’s Master Plan was reviewed in the early 1990s, renovation planners decided to return to Gilbert’s original vision and rethink how the union fits into the Mall.
In order to follow Gilbert’s initial conception, planners hope to construct two “front” doors to the union, one facing the Mall and one facing the Mississippi. With the construction of a new underground parking ramp where the East River Road ramp now stands, officials hold that a door facing south would allow an unobstructed view of the Mississippi.
Improvements to Coffman Union are part of a larger reconstruction plan to reclaim the riverfront called the South Mall project, which begins with the demolition of the East River Road parking ramp. University officials have announced intentions to construct a new subterranean ramp and a new residence hall in the area as well.
“We need to look at the river as an asset to the University,” said Jim Turman, chairman of the Coffman building advisory team.

The Minnesota Union
Union facilities were not always a mainstay on campus as Coffman is today.
Women on campus made the first steps in creating a union-type building in the early 1900s, about 30 years after the University was founded. With few women enrolled in college at that time, the females on campus wanted a place to congregate.
Alice Shevlin Hall opened for the more than 800 women enrolled at the University in 1905. However, the hall was never referred to as a union; instead, official University publications called it a “social and rest center for women students.”
With the success of the women’s procurement of a building, the University’s males soon followed suit. By 1908, their efforts resulted in a movement for what would be called the “Minnesota Union.”
The men secured the authorization of the Board of Regents to use the old chemistry building as their union in 1914, as a compromise resulting from the failure of the Union Board of Governors to obtain total funding for the construction of a new building.
All male students contributed a $3 annual fee to support the union, along with profits from the cafeteria, billiard room, and faculty and student organizations’ rental of union rooms.
Records indicate that while no student groups or individuals took leadership roles in the union campaign, faculty and administration — including then-University President Lotus D. Coffman — wanted a larger, co-educational, social facility.
But funding remained a major obstacle. Students wanted to use the union, but they were not eager to pay for it; just more than 5,000 of the 14,000 University students subscribed to the union campaign.
However, after obtaining federal funds matched by the Greater University Corporation — an organization intended to solicit contributions for the benefit of the University — the 30-year-old plan succeeded.
Construction for Coffman Union began on Aug. 1, 1939 and the union opened on the first day of fall quarter in 1940. The total cost of the building amounted to just more than $2 million, which is equivalent to about $22.2 million today.

B> Shaping Coffman’s future
While plans for the new facility remain ambiguous, officials foresee a number of structural and administrative changes in the new student union.
Aiming for a more open, inviting atmosphere, planners intend to install additional windows, lighting and an improved security system.
The retail makeup of the union will change as well. The improved facility will offer a 10,000-square-foot bookstore, operated by University Bookstores, which will sell trade books and University logo sweatshirts and T-shirts.
Union essentials like the postal service and bank will remain, as well as the Whole Music Club, the Studio, and the Coffman Game Room entertainment venues.
Plans for organizing the food services into a collective, food court-style design are also in the works.
Towle said one important administrative goal is to keep at least one section of the union open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The union is currently closed on Sundays.
“Now, more than ever, we really need a place for building community on campus,” Towle said.
But creating that place will cost money, and the source of those funds is, for now, uncertain.
With no renovation funding coming from the Board of Regents, union planners are expected to “cash flow” — to find their own way to pay for the renovations.
Obtaining funds from student fees is common at colleges nationwide, Towle said. The University of Maryland recently constructed a $48 million student union funded entirely by student fees, she said.
If officials cannot obtain the funds from private sources or student services fees to cover the cost of the project, they might have to bring more retail into the union to compensate.
While it’s a necessary option, officials maintain that students might not prefer blatant commercialization.
“Do students want golden arches across their union?” Towle asked.
Jennea Dow, a senior in the College of Biological Sciences, said she supports the student services fees committee’s ability to make appropriate decisions about allocating student funds.
“It’s not necessarily my decision (whether to pay the fees), but I’m supporting the process by paying the student services fees,” Dow said. “I have faith in that system.”
Beyond the difficulty of obtaining funds from students, officials recognize another obstacle in the payment process.
Current students, many of whom will graduate before union construction is complete, will pay student services fees for a union they will not be around to enjoy when the project finally comes to fruition.
“I’m disappointed that I’m going to be gone when it happens,” Schultz said.
Further, the student union will likely be non-operational for up to two years during the construction of the new facility. As a result, not only will students pay for a union they might not be able to use, but they will also be without current union facilities during construction.
An alternative is to phase in the renovations, which would take five to six years and cost about 30 percent more money in the long run, Towle said. The increase would come from extra safety precautions and increased labor and materials costs.
Coffman officials admit to the difficulty of filling the absence of a union, but hope to continue programming efforts on campus during the expected union shut-down.

Keeping students in mind
To assist in the planning process, an advisory team will soon begin to make recommendations — and ultimately decisions — about the overall future makeup of the student union. The committee’s first meeting was two weeks ago.
Seven of the 20 team members are students, including representatives from the Minnesota Student Association, the Graduate and Professional Student Association, and several cultural centers that call the union home.
The team formed with the intention of bringing together factions of the University community that have a stake in the future of the building. Representatives are expected to keep their various constituencies informed of proceedings and elicit suggestions from them.
Coffman construction representative Tony Armlin, from McLauchlin Armlin North & Associates, has been working with design professionals and contractors who specifically deal with student unions.
Adhering to union officials’ focus on student interest, Armlin called the union renovations a “student-centered” development project.
“To create a successful student union, it’s very clear it has to be a destination, a place students want to be,” Armlin said.
Armlin maintains that the cost standpoint remains a significant priority. He said his firm aims to find the “optimum value” by balancing student input and cost effectiveness.
Aside from a necessary face-lift resulting from years of use, officials cite space constraints as one of the primary reasons for the union renovations. Originally designed to accommodate 14,000 students, the union’s most recent major renovations took place in the 1970s, intended to cater to 30,000 to 40,000 students.
With the current Twin Cities enrollment of 39,595 nearing that upper level, patrons are testing the building’s limits.
Planners have entertained the idea of an addition to the union, but monetary constraints will determine the feasibility of that option, Turman said.
In order to gauge how students feel about the project, Coffman officials plan to send surveys to 1,000 students about the behavior of union users. In addition, officials have held focus groups and recently established an e-mail account for students, staff and faculty to share suggestions on the makeup of the union.
As the renovation plans begin to take shape, the stake students have in the final product remains a top priority for everyone involved.
“Hopefully we’ll get everything we deserve as students in that building,” Schultz said.