KU students to vote this week on fee increase to fund $45 million Kansas Union renovation

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.

This week, University of Kansas students will make a decision that — one way or the other — will affect future students more than themselves.

Students will vote on whether to add a required campus fee of $50 per semester that would begin in fall 2019 and remain in place 30 years. Revenue would fund a $45 million renovation of the Kansas Union that supporters say will ensure the building’s functionality and relevance for the next generation of Jayhawks, but opponents say will make it harder for future students to afford KU.

The Union referendum will be on the ballot for KU’s 2017-18 Student Senate elections, with voting open Wednesday and Thursday.

Collin Cox, a sophomore from Alliance, Neb., is executive outreach director of the Redo Your U campaign promoting the fee and renovation.

His mom was a KU mascot in 1980 — the costume she wore is displayed inside the Union — so it’s easy for him to see long-term benefits of funding a renovation, Cox said.

“I can walk by her mascot and remind myself of the successes that go on and the traditional values that the Union holds,” Cox said.

Cox said the benefits of the renovation “absolutely” outweigh the costs. Aging mechanicals and accessibility problems for visitors with disabilities would be fixed, in addition to improving the Union’s studying, dining and community spaces.

“It’s completely necessary — every dime,” Cox said.

Another group of students has been campaigning against the referendum. Lev Comolli, a sophomore from Lawrence, is president of the student organization, KU Against Rising Tuition.

Comolli said his group might support a smaller fee to fund critical infrastructure problems and environmentally conscious changes, but not the proposed plan that funds “unnecessary” and “unaffordable” improvements. He said $50 per semester — or $100 per year — adds up.

Required campus fees for the current school year are $455 per semester, or $910 for the year.

“We think this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Comolli said.

The Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd., originally opened in 1927 and has received additions numerous times over the decades.

Union officials say the last “comprehensive renovation,” including infrastructure modernization, was in 1984. A project to add the Hawks Nest on Level 1 and the glassed-in staircase on the Union’s west side was completed in 2002.

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According to Redo Your U, online at redoyouru.ku.edu, the current Union renovation proposal calls for:

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.

• Adding a pub and entertainment venue with an upgraded outdoor plaza on Level 1 (former home of Jaybowl), which opens onto Mississippi Street. Level 1 plans also call for adding a makerspace.

• KU Dining improvements, including to seating and study areas, on Level 3.

• Improving interior access to the adjacent Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center on Level 4, the main level of the Union that opens onto Jayhawk Boulevard. Level 4 improvements also would include expanding student lounge, study and interactive space.

• Improvements to meeting spaces and configuration of Levels 5 and 6, most notably traffic flow in and out of Woodruff Auditorium.

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

Infrastructure — including bathroom counts and accessibility not being up to code — is at the root of the whole plan, KU Memorial Union director David Mucci said.

“It’s hard to convey the complexity of a $45 million project, most of it driven by things people will never see,” he said. Mucci said if the Union must repair infrastructure and cut into walls and floors to redo ducts and plumbing, it’s smart to take on other improvements at the same time.

“Now is the time to take care of all those things students told us about,” he said.

Next week’s vote follows more than three years of planning, beginning with the Union commissioning and architectural study in 2013 in conjunction with KU’s broader master plan process, according to Redo Your U. The study involved dozens of meetings with KU students, faculty and staff.

From feedback, Union leaders, consultants and other campus representatives devised the proposed $45 million renovation plan.

When the Union presented it to Student Senate’s Fee Review Committee in spring 2016, the committee recommended the Union pursue the fee increase through a student body vote. A student survey that semester indicated 56 percent of students would support the renovation fee, according to Redo Your U.

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A student body vote on fees to fund a building project at KU is not unprecedented, but it has not happened in almost 20 years.

The back side of the Kansas Union along Mississippi Street.

A fee to build the Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center went to referendum in 1995 and lost, but it 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.

The last time a fee increase for a union project went to referendum was 1976, to build the Burge Union, Mucci said. He said that fee was approved with 73 percent of votes.

A separate required campus fee is already funding the new $11.3 million Central District student union, under construction now where the Burge Union was razed.

In fall 2015, the Student Senate extended the existing student union renovation fee from 2020 to 2048 and increased it by $4.90 per year, from $13.80 to $18.70. Redirecting that fee enabled the Central District union to become larger in scope to house a reflection room, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, KU Legal Services and the Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity at students’ request.

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.

The Redo Your U initiative is led by a student steering committee and sponsored by the KU Memorial Union, according to the campaign.

Ballot question for KU students

“Do you agree to a fifty-dollar ($50.00) fee per semester to renovate and expand the Kansas Union to improve its studying, dining, and community spaces? The fee will not go into effect until Fall of 2019 when phased construction begins.”