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U of M opens Coffman Union; $21.5 million over budget
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The Campus Club on the 4th floor. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
University of Minnesota students in the Twin Cities finally have a place to call their own on the Minneapolis Campus. After scattering its students during three years of renovation, the University of Minnesota is opening the doors of its completely remodeled Coffman Memorial Union. Students and staff are praising the $71 million renovation, despite its cost overruns.

Minneapolis, Minn. — U of M senior and Twin Cities Student Union Board President Chuck Hernick says the newly renovated 353,000-square-foot campus landmark should jibe with student expectations.

"This building is really dedicated; every inch of this building was planned for students, to serve students to its maximum capacity," says Hernick. There's wireless capability throughout the building, and a state-of-the-art 400-seat theater. The old bowling lanes in the basement have been preserved but updated with electronic scoring.

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Image The view from the 4th floor

Hernick says air conditioning and better food were two key features students wanted in a renovated union. "Students were not satisfied with the food service that was offered at the time. They wanted a lot more nationally recognized brands, and that's exactly what we've brought in with this building."

Einstein's Bagels, Starbucks, Baja Tortilla Grill, and others, are renting building slots from the university. The largest vendor will be a new 46,000-square-foot University Bookstore, opening in March.

This new Coffman Union is like an upscale shopping mall. Escalators move students from the basement to the ground floor, and continue up to spill them out between the two fireplaces on the first floor.

Project designer Shawn Gaither of Ellerbee Beckett Architects says the challenge with this project was contemporizing the building while maintaining the historical details. He says a major goal was to undo a dark and drab 1970s renovation.

"There were some sloped, green-glass houses that were attaching themselves to the building. We've removed those, and we've provided for new light and new windows. And we've provided for four-story portions of glass on the south side with views to the river and so forth," says Gaither.

Above street level on the first floor, students looking north will see Northrup Mall and the auditorium. Floor-to-ceiling windows to the south reveal the Mississippi River. The second floor is dedicated to office space for over 30 student cultural centers and organizations.

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Image The theater

Gaither says he took design cues from the building's original 1940s look and feel. Details include metal inlays, a circular shape motif in the carpeting, columns and fixtures, and terrazzo floors.

"We're standing here on an existing terrazzo floor, you'll see some of the wonderful inclusions that tell the story of Coffman over time. It's been patched and repaired, but adds so much more character to the building as well. We could probably step north into the vestibule here to see the beautiful inlay of the brass that was there," he says.

The level of detail in the renovation is dramatic. And so is the price tag: $71.5 million -- $21.5 million over budget.

Some regents and administrators expressed concerns about the cost. In spring 2002, an internal audit on campus construction projects urged greater oversight.

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Image A fountain terrace

University budget officer Mike Berthelsen says lessons learned and the successes of the school's history-making construction boom should outweigh concerns. "Overall when we look at Coffman, people should judge it by its outcome. Do they think the building, in the end, was worth this amount of investment? And I think, overall, when you look at the value of the Union, the answer will be 'yes' to that," Berthelsen says.

There are U of M students who have already graduated but whose fees have been paying for the renovation since 1999. And, in large part, student fees will continue to pay for the new Coffman Union over the next 20 years.

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