Shortly after Coffman Union celebrates its 60th anniversary this fall, its doors will close for 18 months for a $55.8 million renovation.
As students return to campus in September, all of the food, recreation, information and student services in the union will be in full swing for the 10,000 people expected to pass through Coffman Union’s doors each day.
But come November, everything in the eight-story student center must move.
Student organizations and cultural centers will move a few blocks away to a basement location at 720 Washington Ave. S.E. in Stadium Village. Food services will close and the rest of the services, events and programs will spread out across the campus until the union’s doors reopen for fall 2001.
Students will pay for $37.5 million of the renovation through student services fees. The University and Coffman’s post-renovation revenues will cover the rest of the cost.
Communication will be key for the transition, said Michael Holland, a senior economics major and Coffman Board of Governors president. Students will know where to find the “union” through Coffman’s Web site, campuswide e-mails, press releases, signs, public discussions, road shows and news publications.
“Even though the building is closed, the union exists,” Holland said. “Coffman Union is an idea and more than a building.”
Living room of the campus
The East Bank’s union, nestled between the Weisman Art Museum and the Basic Sciences & Biomedical Engineering building, houses a first-floor information desk for students needing answers about the campus.
The role of the student union is the traditional gathering place of a college, offering everyday services and conveniences as well as an environment to meet and learn about others formally and informally.
“It should function as the living room of the campus,” Holland said.
In the center of this living room is the Fireplace Lounge, where students often rest, socialize and study between classes.
Conveniences like ATMs, restrooms, lounge and study spaces, food and dining options and Internet stations help to support students in their academic lives.
Students can get their University identification card at the U Card Office, open a banking account in the credit union and check e-mail at computer terminals. For the ultimate break from academics, students can try their hand at bowling, billiards, foosball, darts, table tennis, arcades or rent a movie in the game room. The Whole Music Club in the basement features punk, swing and other types of bands.
Students can go to the USAVE office for discounted event tickets, to the post office for mail, to three dining services for a meal and to Boynton Health Service via an underground tunnel.
Outside, in front of the lawn facing Washington Avenue, the Campus Connector and city buses pick up and drop off students near an M-shaped garden with maroon and gold flowers.
The union provides students with a “place to belong here at the University and at the same time a place to get away,” said Karen Lyons, the union’s marketing director.
Unmet student needs prompted move
“The Union itself seems functional to the everyday person walking in,” said Maggie Towle, Coffman Union director, “but the infrastructure is deteriorating.”
The roof needs replacing, and accessibility, air conditioning, ventilation and elevator upgrades are necessary.
“More so, Coffman Union is not currently providing many of the services that students said they want in a student union,” Towle said.
Coffman Union is not meeting seven out of the top 10 student needs according to a survey taken last fall, she added.
Towle said the new union will meet student-identified needs with a 24-hour, seven-days-per-week computer lab, a trade bookstore, national and local brand food choices and more lounge and study spaces.
The union will completely close in November while workers rid the building of asbestos — a project that will take three months. By March, renovations are expected to begin.
Student organizations, cultural centers, New Student Programs, the U Card Office and the Campus Involvement Center will be relocated to the basement of 720 Washington Ave. S.E. The lease for this location was approved this summer.
The new location will not offer the central meeting and program space currently at the student union. Yet the Student Services Fees Committee gave a directive to continue Coffman’s average of 600 programs — including concerts, films, cultural events, art shows and recreational events — even while the building is closed.
“We are going beyond the bricks and mortar of Coffman for the next year and a half,” said Bill Vadino, assistant director for the Twin Cities student unions. “720 Washington is only a fraction of what we are doing.”
It is always better to have a central space like Coffman Union, Vadino said. But alternative locations will be defined and communicated clearly to students.
“People are in motion anyway,” Vadino said. “We are just going to let people know where to go.”
USAVE and the post office will be temporarily relocated in November to the Phillips-Wangensteen Building.
Food services will close their Coffman Union operations completely for the renovations. But other University food service locations will beef up their business. Retail locations, such as those in Stadium Village, are certain to see increased traffic.
The six computers stationed in Coffman Union’s basement kiosk — in demand even on the hottest summer day — will be moved to other locations as a part of a larger University plan to add close to 40 Internet kiosks on the East and West banks.
Furniture from Coffman’s lounges will be spread across campus to improve and enlarge existing gathering places.
Alternatives to the game room — with its billiards, bowling, table tennis, video games and video rentals — are still being worked on.
The credit union and alumni association will move to the University Gateway Center. The Campus Club will move to a location closer to administration and faculty during the move.
New venues to replace the Whole Music Club, theater and lecture hall are still being researched.
Most of The Studio’s art classes will find alternative sites and continue during renovation.
“We want to do it in a way that is seamless,” Vadino said.
Search for space
Because the decision to renovate was made after other relocations were in motion, finding enough space for union relocations was difficult.
Student organizations and cultural centers needed 15,000 to 17,000 square feet of space, said Jim Turman, assistant vice president for Student Development and Athletics.
“No matter how you slice the relocation piece, finding that much space together is problematic,” he said.
Over the last year the University has had to vacate 500,000 square feet of space, Turman said. Academic units get first priority for space.
“I don’t think anyone is happy about relocating,” Turman said. “I think students are glad to have decent space. I really don’t think they wanted to be spread all over.”
After the renovation, people will recognize the exterior, Towle said. But the interior will be much different.
On the outside, the building will look more like it did in the 1940s.
Inside, the grand two-story lobby will have two fireplaces. A front door entrance will open to an airy space, ultimately leading the rear entrance to Riverbend Commons, she said. An indoor winter garden will offer students sunlight year-round.
Lyons said the renovated union will have a “much more open feeling and lots more light.”
The new union will also offer more food choices, more space for student organizations and better lounge and study space.
Evening and weekend hours for a computer lab and food venues meet many of the needs students identified in the fall survey.
Students will gain a state-of-the-art multi-use theater with a bigger stage, better seating and larger screen.
Additionally, there will be a new 200-space contract parking garage, a small bookstore with a coffee shop, more student organization office space and additional financial aid, student employment and registrar offices.
So this fall, as students stream back to the campus and as the building’s 60th anniversary approaches, students can go and see what Coffman Union offers now and imagine all that the wait has to offer.
“It’s really going to be the place where students will want to be,” Towle said.