KU Memorial Union proposes $45 million renovation; students will vote on whether to fund it

Prospective University of Kansas students walk past the Kansas Union while on a walking tour of the campus, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. The Union is proposing a 5 million renovation and students will vote in the spring on whether to add a 30-year, 0 per semester fee to finance it.

The University of Kansas Memorial Union is proposing a $45 million renovation to the building, and asking KU students to pay for it with a long-term fee increase.

KU students will vote this spring on whether to add a $50 per semester fee, which would stay in place 30 years, to pay for the union renovations. The KU Student Senate recommends most annual student fees on its own but decided this week to put the union matter to a campus-wide referendum.

“It would be a $50 fee, and for a longer maturity,” Student Body President Stephonn Alcorn said. “That was something that the student body needed to vote on. Every single student would be affected by that fee increase.”

Alcorn said neither he nor Student Senate has an official position on the proposal at this time. He said he expects an organized campaign to roll out and various student groups and the Student Senate to voice positions on the measure as the year progresses and more details are firmed up.

The back side of the Kansas Union along Mississippi Street.

Union leaders say the renovation is needed to upgrade aging mechanical systems and improve the union’s studying, dining and community spaces.

Lisa Kring, director of building and event services for the Memorial Union, said the building at 1301 Jayhawk Blvd. has 1.9 million visitors a year and that it’s the place high school juniors and seniors congregate when they come for campus visits.

Also, Kring said, all five Kansas Board of Regents universities have undertaken union renovations ranging from $9 million to $36 million in the past 10 years. A project to add the Hawks Nest on Level 1 and the glassed-in staircase on the KU Memorial Union’s west side was completed in 2002, Kring said, and the last infrastructure modernization happened in 1984.

“We have not done a comprehensive renovation of this building in 32 years. It’s really time to invest in the building,” Kring said. “The project is the cost that it is because it is a complete look at this building. We don’t want it to be a piecemeal approach, we want it to be a holistic master plan approach.”

According to Kring, proposed changes include:

A conceptual rendering shows what a new passage from the KU Memorial Union into the Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center might look like, if the union moves forward with a 5 million renovation plan. If students vote to approve a 0 fee increase to fund the renovation, union officials said they would work with students on design work.

A conceptual rendering shows a possible design for the area outside Woodruff Auditorium in the University of Kansas Memorial Union, if the union moves forward with a 5 million renovation plan. If students vote to approve a 0 fee increase to fund the renovation, union officials said they would work with students on final designs.

• $6.5 million to update aging plumbing, electrical and climate control systems. Kring said the goal is to upgrade the mechanical systems before they fail unexpectedly, causing disruption and unbudgeted expense.

• A 12,000-square-foot addition to the building’s west side. It would add more space and more daylight to levels one through five.

• Architectural changes to enhance the union’s connection to the Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center next door. Right now, Kring said, many people don’t know the two are linked or where to go back and forth.

• Changes to improve the flow of Level 5, especially for Woodruff Auditorium. Crowds bottleneck in the current space for entering and exiting the 500-capacity auditorium, which also needs updates inside.

• Reconfiguring Level 3 so that outside lunchtime hours, the dining area is better suited for studying and small group meetings. More walled-in meeting rooms are needed to meet demand.

• Food service improvements.

KU students currently pay a total of $455 per semester in required campus fees.

Among those are fees funding construction, maintenance and operations of several student-focused facilities.

The last time a fee increase for a union project went to a student vote was in 1976, to build the Burge Union, KU Memorial Union director David Mucci said. He said that fee was approved with 73 percent of votes.

A fee to build the Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center went to referendum in 1995 and lost, but was overwhelmingly approved three years later. In 1998 students voted to authorize an additional $62 in student fees to build and operate the center. According to previous Journal-World reports, a $12 portion of the rec center fee earmarked for facility bond payments is set to expire in 2027.

In fall 2015 the Student Senate voted on a fee increase to fund a new $11.3 million Central District student union, under construction now where the Burge Union previously stood.

That increase went into effect this year and will last until 2048. The move extended the student union renovation fee — which would have sunset in 2020 — and increased it by $4.90 per year, from $13.80 to $18.70.

Kring said redirecting the Memorial Union renovation fee was envisioned to ease the burden of paying for the Central District union, which became larger in scope due to student requests to house a reflection room, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, KU Legal Services and the Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity.

“The needs of this building (the Memorial Union) are not supplanted by the needs for the Central District union,” Kring said.

The Memorial Union is a nonprofit affiliate corporation of the university. Revenue from food and bookstore sales helps support union operations and has helped keep union fees relatively flat since the 1990s.

“Historically, we have come to Student Senate for additional fee support when we have large capital project needs that are reflective of student feedback,” Kring said. “Because the fee implication is substantial in this case — $50 per semester for 30 years — Student Senate has rightfully directed the fee question to the student body.”

Kring said student, faculty and staff focus groups, as well as consultations with two architectural and engineering firms, helped develop priorities for the proposed renovation.

If approved the new $50 renovation fee would begin in 2019 and sunset in 2048, Kring said. If this spring’s referendum fails, she said, “We will work to understand why the fee did not pass and re-direct our efforts with that feedback in mind.”