If you build it, I will come

HBy Jared Roddy

how many years have I walked past Coffman Union – a vacant shell, a once-proud building scored, scratched and broken by machines and men? How many times has a sign posted in front of that edifice proclaimed only months until the building should be returned to its former glory? How many times has the date on that sign changed? Where is that sign now?

Coffman Union is rumored to have been, in its heyday, perhaps the best student union in the country. Its sheer size dwarfs that of similar unions at Iowa State and University of Wisconsin – Madison. Inside, it is said that marble floors and cathedral ceilings dazzled the eyes and ears as footsteps echoed through those hallowed halls.

Imagine the view from its conservatory, displaying the Mississippi River valley, Minneapolis to the right and St. Paul on the left. In my mind’s eye, I don’t care that there is a little cracked veneer on the 100-year-old windows, a slight yellowing of glass made by hands that remembered the Civil War. I don’t care that the wooden floors are scratched, or that the inside arches are dusty on the edges.

Those of you who have been inside Coffman may recognize that I have never set foot in the building. Every description I’ve given is pure invention, the product of rumor and imagination. In truth, I’ve heard there was actually an asbestos problem in the brick giant. Perhaps that’s why the University decided renovation was necessary. That would have been nearly three years ago.

Last year, The Minnesota Daily reported an interesting figure about the skyrocketing cost of “renovation” for the union. I recall the original accepted bid to be $45 million. Granted, while this is an ample amount to build an entirely new building, the history and tradition of Coffman endures and renovation was deemed the better alternative. Last year, when the cost estimate reached $75 million, $10 million more than the highest rejected bid, former President Mark Yudof and the Board of Regents simply signed the check. They should have left it blank.

I’ve been a tuition-paying student at this University for two years and I’ve never been in our union. Never mind that it’s a federal mandate for all land-grant colleges to have student unions. Forget the displaced student groups now scattered to the wind. I don’t care that I now have to walk an extra mile across the Mississippi River to get a piece of pizza. What I do care about – and what we all should mind – is that this project will never be finished. No, not this winter, not next fall, but never. As a student of this University, you will never set foot inside Coffman.

Every time University officials say they will finish it, they start a different project. Last winter, for example, parts of the union were supposed to open. Instead, we tore down those painfully convenient walking bridges so that an extra half-mile could be added to any pedestrian’s journey. Last spring, when we were guaranteed at least something would be open, a state-of-the-art glass box was installed on the street corner. The purpose of this device, I’ve been told, is so that in the future, jet-setting students can wait for flying buses away from the sting of the elements. Since this glass box is off-limits to the student body, our feeble minds can hardly comprehend its potential uses and would likely make it less efficient.

This semester, I returned to class fully expecting at least partial usage of Coffman. Sadly, I found the union in a bigger mess than I had left it. The new bridges seem to have taken precedence and any and all progress on the building has ground to a halt.

Yesterday, I saw four workers installing a glass door and pounding on it with a hammer. On Wednesday, 30 men were installing stainless steel cladding to our new bridges; the only workers near the union itself were having lunch in the shade of its bulk. It’s going to be real nice having those bridges, even if the “No trespassing, violators will be prosecuted” signs on the other side are less than aesthetic. If you walk around Coffman’s rear quarters, you’ll find that there is no way this building will be finished in three months. A jack is still holding up the ceiling inside.

I am getting tired of not having a place to go and take a nap on a comfy couch, grab a snack, shoot some pool, play some pinball or “cut loose” in any way while on campus during the day. The stress of class is already starting to show – too little sleep, too little food, ulcers, headaches, smoking. I’m also sick of having to tromp all over creation to find anything. Where is the bursar’s office? Where is the registrar? Where is my next meal coming from? Not every student has a dorm to retreat to when the pressures of a university start to weigh upon him or her. Many of us live off-campus and, unless we have limitless resources, cannot afford to leave and come back.

The union must be finished. We must demand it, and we must place pressure on whoever is in charge to get in gear. An entire building could possibly have been erected and completed for less money in the time it has taken to renovate Coffman. If this is what is “good for the student,” I don’t want any more help. I just want a union – a place to lay my weary head on those long afternoons, a comfy chair to do my reading. But for now, the best I can hope for is a seat by a tree in the mall, staring at that awful scar of a monument and fighting the squirrels for a spot in the shade.