Assembly Hall debate returns to front burner

It's game time in the Assembly Hall.

From the floor to the upper limits of the C section: 16,000 orange dots. There's noise – it's more than cheering, but a roaring, a thundering.

"The pulse," as Chancellor Richard Herman put it, "is tremendous" at a University of Illinois basketball game.

Built in 1963, the Assembly Hall was designed by noted architect and UI graduate Max Abramovitz and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its look is famous: giant, white, pillar-less and spaceshiplike (or some say, mushroomlike).

The hall is also famous for its orange-emblazoned crowds.

With the $116 million renovation now under way at Memorial Stadium – the UI is marketing it as the "Illinois Renaissance" – some people are turning their attention to the iconic building south of Florida Avenue.

Is another renaissance in the works?

Discussion apparently is heating up among administrators, faculty, staff, students and donors about whether the UI should renovate the Assembly Hall or build a new arena, and who should control the building.

You could say the debate has been ongoing for 40 years (the Assembly Hall is 43 years old), said Xen Riggs, a former director of the Assembly Hall who is now an assistant vice president at Ohio State.

After all these years of debate, the UI could be moving closer to a decision on the building's fate.

"For me the issue is what are we going to do? Build a new arena or retrofit the Assembly Hall?" said Herman, who would like a decision to be made before the start of the next academic year – or maybe sooner.

He said he's working with the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, which currently rents space in the Assembly Hall for basketball games; with the vice chancellor for student affairs office, which oversees the building; plus UI President B. Joseph White, members of the board of trustees and other stakeholders.

Weighing the options

"My opinion is the Assembly Hall is very impressive, but I'm not sure it is to a 17-year-old," Riggs said.

Because the athletic department is trying to recruit top players and compete in the Big Ten, "I can see why it's very important for (the DIA) to have a new building or renovate the Assembly Hall," Riggs said.

But here's some food for thought.

If the Assembly Hall weren't an architecturally significant structure, would anyone at the UI or in Champaign-Urbana hesitate to tear it down and rebuild? Riggs asked.

"Isn't that the real issue? How architecturally significant is the Assembly Hall?" he said.

Doug Mills is a UI donor and graduate who played football, basketball and baseball at the university. He graduated a year before the hall was dedicated. He attends most of the basketball games and has seen quite a few touring productions there, including the Ice Capades.

"It is a great building, but it's not a building that is state-of-the art for playing basketball," Mills said.

The Assembly Hall was built to be a multipurpose facility, said Stan Levy, retired UI vice chancellor for student affairs.

When it debuted to the public, the Assembly Hall was the arena in downstate Illinois. Through the decades, performers like Elvis and bands like U2 have taken the stage there. Circus acts have walked the tightrope and tamed animals there. Monster trucks have revved up their engines in the Assembly Hall.

"In the last 20 years, the balance has shifted heavily from a facility for student and community events to an athletic facility," Levy said.

But student fees, as any UI student will point out, have not gone down. Students continue to subsidize the building, UI senior Ryan Ruzic said.

The rebuild or renovate debate has resurfaced at a time when the university's budget has tightened in recent years thanks to declining, flat or slightly increased state appropriations.

In the meantime, other campus landmarks like Lincoln Hall are crumbling, Ruzic said.

The Assembly Hall, considered an auxiliary building, is under the control of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. The Assembly Hall director reports to this office. And an advisory committee, made up of undergraduate and graduate students, staff and faculty, steers the director on policies and budgetary issues.

The annual $456-a-student general fee funds buildings like the Assembly Hall, Illini Union, Campus Recreation and other units.

The Assembly Hall's annual budget is about $10 million, and student fees cover about 45 percent of the operating budget, said Kevin Ullestad, the Assembly Hall's director. The building also brings in revenue from hosting events. About 40 full-time and 600 part-time employees work there.

The current strategic plan for the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs calls for a renovation of the building. It would add air conditioning, new seating, concession areas, restrooms and escalators. A renovation is estimated to cost $60 million to $70 million, Ullestad said.

The last major renovation was completed in 1999 and cost $12 million.

Financed by student fees, that renovation focused on training and locker rooms, dressing rooms, the backstage area, office and storage areas and loading zones.

But if the UI does decide to build a new arena, what would the it do with the Assembly Hall?

"The Assembly Hall is an icon," Herman said.

Would the two arenas compete for business? Adding a second arena will not double the events in Champaign-Urbana, Riggs said. He said he'd be surprised if the number of events would increase enough to justify two buildings.

There are a lot other questions before Herman and other UI decision makers. If you're building a new, second arena, will it be just for basketball? Would other national touring events be there? Could other sports teams, such as hockey, play games there? And how would you pay for the renovation? How would you pay for the new arena?

"There are merits on both sides (of renovating or rebuilding)," Mills said. "I don't have a position either way, but it's important that a decision on one of the two options ought to be made and then move forward."

Who will control?

Intertwined with the discussion on whether to renovate or rebuild is the debate about whether or not the Assembly Hall should be a student affairs facility or a facility run by the DIA.

The Assembly Hall hosts about 100 events a year; 30 to 35 percent of those events are sports, Ullestad said.

"If the Assembly Hall were to be renovated ... we either have to do it on student fees or go and raise the money for it," Herman said.

And who is the principle financial generator in the Assembly Hall?

The DIA.

Athletic Director "Ron (Guenther) has been clear in the past: If there's going to be a renovation project and DIA is expected to raise money then there should be some (DIA) administrative control," DIA spokesman Kent Brown said.

Guenther declined to be interviewed for this article.

Students are less than enthusiastic about handing over control of the Assembly Hall, though.

The advisory committee last year voted unanimously not to transfer control to the DIA, Ruzic said. A 2003 recommendation for the Assembly Hall Review Committee called for the Hall to be turned over to the athletic department. Students protested, and last December Herman said day-to-day management of the building will remain under student affairs. His announcement came as a relief to students like Ruzic.

But students are still worried they could lose control of the arena.

"Ultimately it's important the Assembly Hall continues to serve students as a venue for student-run activities," Ruzic said. "The general conclusion is athletics has a history of not responding to students and student needs," he said.

He pointed to the Memorial Stadium remodeling project and how the student section is moving from the midfield to the north end zone.

As for Mills, he supports "the Ron Guenther theory: If (athletics) raise the money, they should have more control over the building."

But first the UI needs to decide what to do: renovate or build a new arena, Herman said.

"Second of all, I'm aware of the cost of attending this school: its tuition, fees, housing costs. We have to make sure we ensure access," he said.

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