Decision to close KU’s Oliver Hall came down to enrollment trends, chancellor says

photo by: Sara Shepherd

Oliver Hall, located at 1815 Naismith Drive on the University of Kansas campus, is pictured Monday, Feb. 20, 2017.

The decision not to reopen a decades-old residence hall at the University of Kansas was based on enrollment projections and current occupancy rates at the campus’ other nine residence halls, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said Monday.

The university confirmed on Friday that the hall, which had been closed since the end of the 2018-2019 school year and was slated for renovations, would not be reopening.

Girod told the Journal-World Monday that the university looked at demographic trends as well as what it would cost to bring Oliver Hall, built in 1966, up to 2020 standards. Based on that analysis, he said, the university decided that renovating the building simply wasn’t the right fit.

“It’s a really old building with old bones, and did it make sense to put $25 million to $40 million into that building? And would we have the demand for it if we did?” Girod said of the decision-making process. “Our projections right now look like that probably would not be the case.”

Though Oliver Hall was long the cheapest on-campus dorm, it was also nearly always the last to approach full capacity, Girod said. And if the university had decided to renovate the building, it would have been more expensive for students to live there.

“You can’t save it at that price point, and that was certainly part of the conversation, but we just couldn’t figure out a way to do that,” Girod said. “It was on the block to be redone, but when we looked at it we weren’t sure we’d ever be able to recoup that investment.”

The university first filed a request for capital improvement project funds with the Kansas Board of Regents in July 2014, at the time saying it needed $18 million to appropriately renovate the residence hall. By the time it submitted the most recent project request in July 2019, however, that number had skyrocketed to $28 million.

Part of that increase was due to KU’s plans to repurpose Oliver’s dining hall and turn it into a student services and academic resource center, according to the capital improvement requests KU submitted to the Regents. Girod said he didn’t know if those plans were still in the works.

The capital improvement requests submitted to the Regents also included preliminary planning and design costs that amounted to $3.2 million. Girod said that to his knowledge, none of that money was actually spent, and all deliberations on how to renovate Oliver Hall happened internally.

“I don’t believe they had invested in any architectural plans other than our own internal team,” he said. “I don’t believe we had any consultants involved in that.”

Even with Oliver’s closure, KU has still added housing capacity over the last five to seven years with the construction of Cora Downs Residence Hall in KU’s Central District. Students will now have nine residence halls, 12 scholarship halls and the Jayhawker Towers and Stouffer Place Apartments to choose from for on-campus living.

KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson told the Journal-World Monday that the current rates of occupancy for campus residence halls were as follows:

•Corbin Hall, 420 W 11th St: 99.7%

•Cora Downs Residence Hall, 1517 W 18th St.: 97.2%

•Ellsworth Hall, 1734 Engel Road: 99.0%

•Gertrude Sellars Pearson Residence Hall, 500 West 11th Street: 77.6%

•Hashinger Hall, 1632 Engel Road: 87.6%

•Lewis Hall, 1530 Engel Road: 97.9%

•Oswald Hall, 1620 Engel Road: 99.4%

•Self Hall, 1620 Engel Road: 99.4%

•Templin Hall, 1515 Engel Road: 97.4%

Broadly speaking, Barcomb-Peterson said, the residence halls housed 3,266 students and were 95.1% full on the 20th day of classes in the fall, also known as the university’s census day.

Girod said that the decision to close Oliver was made more sensible by the fact that there wasn’t enough demand to fill the other residence halls at KU.

It’s not clear what will happen to the Oliver building, and Girod didn’t know if it would be torn down similar to McCollum Hall’s scheduled implosion in 2015.

Barcomb-Peterson couldn’t be immediately reached to provide clarification on the plans for the space.

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