Renovation plans for the Memorial Union

Diane Newberry, Staff Writer

From March 28 to 30, representatives from WTW Architects in Pittsburg visited campus for the fourth time as part of the planning process for renovations to the Memorial Union. Senior Principal on the project Paul Knell and Director of Planning Derek Eversmann spent much of their time on campus conducting open forums and giving presentations on the current plan. Though the vision for the new Union is much more fleshed out than it was at this time last spring, Knell and Eversmann stress that “no one’s ready to put a shovel in the ground (yet)” and student and faculty input could still have a tremendous amount of influence.

So far, it would seem that WTW has taken their pledge to include the community seriously. A large part of their presentation was dedicated to explaining how they had made their decisions to suit the student body so far. According to Knell, 1,334 students responded to a survey conducted last year about what they would like to see included in a newly imagined Union, and WTW “ha(s) met with Greek councils, student ambassadors, (had) multiple open forums” and met with Student Government in order to discuss options. “We tried to engage a lot of students,” Knell said, who himself has worked on 110 student life centers on campuses across the country.

The presentation conducted by Knell and Eversmann during this visit included several new pieces of concept art, as well as an animation meant to give viewers the best impression of what these renovations might look like. The most dramatic change for students is one of the project’s main goals: “to connect McCannel and the Union in a much more significant way,” as Knell puts it.

The new union would not only entail extensive renovations to the interior and exterior of the current union, but would also add a new pedestrian promenade built over what is currently the section of 2nd Avenue between McCannel and the union. This promenade would resemble a shopping mall, comprised of open space surrounded by office and study space.

“Not only is it unsightly, but it is also very unsafe,” Knell says about the current truck loading set-up behind the Union. Truck loading docks would be moved to the side of the building, away from pedestrian traffic.

The renovation plans also focus on “not just increasing the space but improving the flexibility of the space.” The ballroom would be expanded and made more multi-purpose, the meal plan centered dining hall would be replaced with a variety of food retail stands and more space and resources would be included that could be utilized by all student groups on campus, not just the ones represented in the current union. Lounge and study space would also be increased and scattered throughout instead of being concentrated in large chunks. Eversmann stressed that they were focused on providing “as much daylight as possible” and opening up the space in both the vertical and horizontal directions so that “you’re going to be aware of all of the floors (in the building).”

Those in the audience at the 4:30 p.m. forum on Wednesday, March 29 gave generally positive feedback with a few critiques. There was some concern about the abundance of glass-walled study spaces because students seem reluctant to use similar spaces around campus. Frosted glass or retractable shades were brought up as possible solutions. Single-stalled, genderless bathrooms were also asked about to accommodate students with alternative gender identities. Knell and Eversmann replied that spaces in the plans currently reserved for restrooms are flexible and could easily include this feature.

Though the process of union renovation planning started under President Kelly, Knell says the plans would support President Kennedy’s “From Coulee to Columbia” initiative that aims to give a unifying identity to those buildings that face out onto University Avenue, what Knell calls the “front door of campus.”  Though the renovations focus on many aesthetic problems of the school, Eversmann says they would also address “significant needs for both (the Union) and McCannel,” which he says has been estimated to be 25 million dollars’ worth of deferred maintenance on structural aspects of the buildings. There is no cost estimate on what this current plan, and it has yet to be approved.

Knell estimates that one more year of planning would have to occur if the basic idea were to be approved by the school, followed by two to three years of construction. Though he thinks the entire project could be accomplished in eighteen months, ideally, Knell says the construction would be done in sections, allowing different parts of the Union to remain open at all times for students’ use.

Diane Newberry is a staff writer for The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected]