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Road to renewal: UND eyes renovation projects to change look of campus corridor

The Chester Fritz Library would be one facet of a wider push for a campus overhaul along University Avenue, the main artery of UND. Renovations for the library would be funded by donations garnered by the UND Alumni Association and Foundation. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
Gamble Hall is part of a proposed beautification initiative dubbed "Coulee to Columbia." The project would target three buildings -- Gamble Hall, the Chester Fritz Library and Memorial Union -- for renovation over the next few years. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

UND has launched an early initiative to rejuvenate its main corridor.

The project, which is now under the guidance of the recently assembled Coulee to Columbia Committee, would include three major renovation projects along the stretch of University Avenue spanning the English Coulee and Columbia Road. Upon completion, the overhaul as currently planned would draw renovations totaling an approximate $189 million—to be funded mainly by private donations and possibly a student fee increase—for Memorial Union, Gamble Hall and the Chester Fritz Library.

The committee tasked with sketching the broad strokes of the project and pulling together the efforts of three separate building efforts met for the first time last Friday. UND President Mark Kennedy said the committee will be meeting over the next few weeks with the goal of creating some preliminary concepts by early April.

"With some of the things they're envisioning," said Kennedy of the committee members, "I think it became quite clear in even the first meeting that we don't feel we've comfortably optimized across the avenue, much less in individual buildings."

One of the early points to come from the committee's first meeting was a concern for safety on University Avenue, which sees high levels of both pedestrian and motorized traffic. Another idea to arise was that the space in Memorial Union is currently too much devoted to study area, a characteristic Kennedy described as a "placeholder" for reduced capacity for studying in other locations, such as the library.

In general, much of the committee's early work is based in improving walkability and reducing the campus footprint. The latter initiative is driven by space utilization studies and has also been expressed in the ongoing process of committing some university buildings to offline status, a condition which serves as a precursor for demolition or mothballing.

Project costs

The renovations for the Chester Fritz and Gamble Hall, which houses the UND College of Business and Public Administration, would primarily come from private donations garnered through the UND Alumni Association and Foundation.

A UND news release stated the target funding level for the library project is $21 million, a sum which would be directed to renovation and deferred maintenance costs. DeAnna Carlson Zink, CEO of the Alumni Association, has stated about $7 million has already been laid aside for matching funds to pair with private donations. The release stated the library hasn't had any major renovations since 1981.

The planned renovations for Gamble Hall would also be funded through the association. The home of the business school would carry a heftier price tag with a funding goal of $70 million.

Funding for Memorial Union would be drawn from an increase in student fees, conditional on the results of a student body vote. Student fees are costs charged beyond tuition to support non-instructional services offered to students. As of last fall, the maximum cost of student fees at UND is slightly more than $590, based on a 12-credit enrollment.

The union would carry the largest piece of the wider funding pool with a total goal of $98 million. It would also involve the most extensive overhaul, which would include a building addition to connect the student facility to neighboring McCannel Hall, shutting off Second Avenue North to traffic.

The date for the student body vote was initially announced for April 12, though Student Body Vice President Blake Andert, a member of the Coulee to Columbia Committee, said he doubted the vote would happen so soon.

Though an official postponement isn't yet finalized, Andert said the short timeframe "doesn't give students an adequate amount of time to really divulge all the information" about the project.

He also said the vote could be delayed until fall to watch the effects of the current budgetary pressures handed to UND by the state Legislature.

UND is anticipating a $32 million total reduction in appropriated funding for the upcoming two-year budget period, a cut made as a result of decreased revenues for the state of North Dakota in light of sluggish commodity prices.

Given the budget situation, Andert said students were concerned to see how things play out. Planning for a revamped union "isn't at the top of a lot of students' priorities list," he said.

"What we've been looking at is holding off, letting the dust settle after these budget cuts go through and really see how this affects students once the cuts are finalized and the announcements are made," said Andert.

While the timing is still in question, he was in support of the general outline for a renovated union with more space for casual and recreational activities, in addition to student organization functions. Andert saw the wider reinvestment in University Avenue as a "smart move" to better recruit students to UND.

The committee is chaired by Mike Pieper, UND's associate vice president for facilities.

Pieper tentatively characterized the initiative's road to realization as a five-year process, and described the group's efforts as a means to guide the three separate design teams working on the remodels and renovations of the different buildings.

"Just because all three projects are so close together, we're trying to gain a better understanding of pedestrian traffic, vehicular traffic and what the long-term vision of University Avenue is," said Pieper. He saw the role of the committee as possibly giving design objectives and some broader goals to avoid duplication among the different projects.

The first meeting of the committee drew from studies previously completed both by UND and the city of Grand Forks which identify assets and areas of future interest. Pieper anticipated the group's next meeting, which is scheduled for Monday morning, to be "really geared towards 'what-ifs" and draw from examples of projects in other university communities.

Partnership with city

Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland said the city has been planning its own improvements to University Avenue as part of its wider infrastructure obligations.

The city's "rehabilitation" of the avenue would begin in downtown Grand Forks and move through the campus area, Feland said. He was happy to have a seat at the table to hear the ideas coming from UND while representing the city's processes.

"While we plan University Avenue, specifically through that stretch, maybe we have a unique look for what complements some of the buildings they're looking at," said Feland. "We can start incorporating the university into our planning process regarding improvements."

He said the extent of the city's work on the avenue would be a wide look focusing on the street, medians and sidewalks to rejuvenate what he called a "tired" piece of roadway.

Kennedy agreed with Feland's characterization of the campus stretch of the avenue.

So far, he said, the concept of renovating the university's properties along the road have been met with enthusiasm, though there's been some questioning of the financial provisions.

"There are some that are wondering, 'If you're cutting back on operating costs, why are you investing in capital costs?' " said Kennedy. "Those are two different buckets—you can't really take a one-time capital contribution from alumni who want to give it for structure and turn that into an annualized amount that is used to sustain an operating budget."

Rather than just an incurred set of infrastructure costs, Kennedy described the overarching renovation project as an investment for continued recruitment of new students.

"I think our recruiters would say that the fact that the coulee to Columbia has been allowed to get tired is reducing the number of students coming to UND," he said. "Less students means less revenue, so if we put that in a more attractive state, that's going to mean more students, more revenue and more ability to fund whatever else you're otherwise concerned about."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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