Housing crunch focus of regents

Regents mulled a $99M dorm renovation and backed a leasing agreement with two complexes.

by Kevin Beckman

To keep up with an undergraduate population projected to grow by nearly 3,000 by 2021, the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents considered two proposals Wednesday to expand and upgrade housing options, both on and off campus.

The proposals include a nearly $100 million renovation of Pioneer Hall and the leasing of apartments for student housing at two nearby apartment complexes for almost $8 million a year.

Debate over how to house more students — especially second-year and transfer students — on campus or in 

University housing has persisted for more than a year as regents and University administrators have struggled to agree on the best way to address the shortage. 

School leaders and officials have expressed their desire to house more students on campus or in University residences. Having students in such housing beyond their first year, they say, boosts GPAs and graduation rates. 


Pioneer Hall Renovations 

While Pioneer Hall was revamped  in 1977 and has undergone repair and maintenance since, no major work has been done in the past 15 years.

The hall — completed in 1932 — is part of the University’s Superblock, a quartet of University housing that caters to mostly freshman. 

The outdated dorm doesn’t meet current building codes in several areas, is not handicapped accessible and needs upgrades like ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical system replacement and bathroom renovation.

University staff presented the Board’s Facilities, Planning and Operations Committee Wednesday with options for renovating Pioneer Hall, which ranged from just fixing deficiencies to completely removing Pioneer to building a new residence hall.

Regents also considered an option to add a $22.8 million, 850-seat dining facility to more effectively serve all 2,800 Superblock residents.

All told, the proposal would be $99 million. The University’s recommendation calls for a $76.2 million renovation to maintain the building’s character and bed capacity.

Other options range from $15.5 million for fixing the current building’s deficiencies to $105.25 million to demolish and build a new hall. If the new dining hall is included, that number reaches $130 million.

Regent Michael Hsu said he would like to see the lowest-cost fixes at Pioneer, saving significant costs for building new housing in the future to increase the University’s capacity for campus living.

“If at some point it becomes clear that we need to spend a significant amount of money, I would want to spend that money on new housing,” Hsu said. “A hundred million dollars later, I would expect that we would have more University housing as opposed to the same or just a little bit more.”

Regent Thomas Devine said money for the renovations would come from University Housing and Residential Life cash reserves funded through student housing fees.

If Pioneer were to be rebuilt or significantly remodeled, Devine said, housing fees would most likely have to increase over three to five years on top of the 3.6 percent increase included in University President Eric Kaler’s 2017 budget.

Regents are expected to vote on a final option in September.


Master lease agreement 

By 2021, the University hopes to add another 1,000 beds to accommodate 90 percent of first-year classes, 25 percent of returning second-year classes and 10 percent of transfer students, said Vice President for University Services Pam Wheelock during a report to Regents Wednesday.

To help achieve this goal, Regents approved two leasing agreements with the nearby Keeler and Radius at 15th apartment complexes.

The idea to use privately owned apartment complexes to solve a lack of available University housing was first proposed last year. 

Regents and administrators say the nearly $8 million a year leasing doesn’t affect the University’s debt, helps retain students in school-managed housing and is quicker and more flexible than on-campus dorms.

“We can do a lease much faster than build,” said Regent Thomas Anderson. “If we can go in and get a good enough master lease so that we can lease them at appropriate rates for our students and turn them into quasi-residence halls, I think that’s good for everyone.”

Beginning in late August 2017 and continuing until the summer of 2022, the University will lease 164 beds in 44 furnished apartments from Keeler Apartments and 772 beds in 200 furnished apartments from Radius at 15th.

The apartment complexes are leasing to the University at a discount, enabling the school to cover staff operations costs and keep rent the same for students, Wheelock said. The current plan is for 11.5-month leases that could accommodate students if they choose to study abroad.

The University will pay an annual rent of about $1.3 million to Keeler Apartments and about $6.5 million to Radius at 15th, funded through student housing fees.

Regents said the leases would be pay-as-you-go, and the University would not have to borrow any money or subsidize from other funds.

“I don’t think it’s the University’s intent to make money on these master leases,” Anderson said. “I think it’s our intent to find the best possible rate for the students.”