Change is coming at Illini Union

Change is coming at Illini Union

URBANA — It's the front door to the campus.

The place where generations of University of Illinois students have downed caffeine, crammed for exams, napped on couches and relaxed with a game of pool, pinball or bowling.

The place where new students often start their campus life, where trustees meet, where student and faculty senators debate, and where alumni return to walk down memory lane, fight over hotel rooms overlooking the Quad and even marry.

Built during the Depression, the historic Illini Union has charmed many a campus visitor with its stately columns and wood-paneled lounges.

But it's long overdue for a facelift and expansion, according to the folks who run it.

A feasibility study completed in February — in conjunction with the Union's 75th anniversary — drew up ambitious plans for a top-to-bottom renovation, the most expensive in campus history: a whopping $247 million, surpassing the recent State Farm Center and Memorial Stadium projects. The cost includes $114 million for two optional levels of underground parking.

The project has yet to be approved by trustees, and construction wouldn't start for another five years, in 2022. The fundraising campaign is still in the planning stages.

But it's among the top campus construction priorities and will be part of the university-wide campaign set to kick off in October, complete with "naming opportunities." An account has already been set up by the UI Foundation, officials said last week. No state funds will be used for the project, though student fees likely will.

"This really is an iconic building," said Angela Dimit, director of advancement for student affairs, which oversees the Illini Union. "I think alumni will be very, very eager to be a part of it."

Backers say the project would provide much-needed space for student programs, recreation, meetings and conferences.

Conceptual designs, which could change, call for a three-story addition to the middle of the building, with strikingly modern, glassed-in walls. The first floor would be opened up to allow uninterrupted views of the Quad as soon as you step in the north entrance along Green Street, said Laurence Uphoff, senior associate director of the Union.

The wood-paneled north and south lounges would be preserved "pretty much as they are," with updated fixtures. But an open food court would be installed in the center, replacing the three Illini Rooms and the Courtyard Cafe.

The third floor of the addition would house expanded and modernized Illini Rooms that could accommodate larger conferences that are now turned away because of limited or outdated space, officials said. On the second floor, spaces for student organizations and programs would be greatly expanded.

The lower level — which now includes a food court, tech center and the Union's prized bowling alley — would be reconfigured into a fitness center, auditorium (a top student priority) and other entertainment spaces. The bowling alley would stay.

The project would also remodel the 74 tired hotel rooms on the south side of the Union, which would get larger bathrooms and upgraded fixtures to make them more comfortable and "relevant" to today's travelers, supporters said.

Modern design

The glass exterior on the west side of the building and skylights in the roof are designed to bring in natural light and provide a more "welcoming appearance," which students and alumni identified as a priority when surveyed for the feasibility study, according to the Q&A on the project.

It's unclear how a contemporary addition might play with alumni who prize the Union's traditional architecture, though Uphoff said he hasn't heard any complaints.

Graduate Sylvia Puente, now executive director of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum, served as a student member on the Union's board of directors before graduating in 1980. As part of The News-Gazette's "UI at 150" series, she recalled how she celebrated her achievement as the first college graduate in her family by having a drink inside the building's tower after her last final exam.

After reviewing the designs at The News-Gazette's request, Puente said she appreciates the "sentiment to modernize" and the goal of creating more space for students.

But "I fear that the feeling of familiarity that I and countless generations of Illini before me have would be lost. I love the familiarity of the Union, and I can certainly see how it has changed over the past 30 years. Yet, its basic architecture and feel remains intact. This is what I remember most about U of I and I would hate to see it lost."

Uphoff and Dimit emphasized that the preliminary designs in the feasibility study are just a starting point. Once the project begins in earnest, the campus will hire an architect who will again consult with students, faculty and alumni before drawing up plans.

"The whole design could change," Uphoff said.

"We're going to preserve the most significant portions of the building" and its exterior, he added.

The new addition would extend slightly beyond the building's current footprint, requiring the "Diana" fountain outside to be moved farther out, but it wouldn't go beyond the corners of the north and south wings or above the current roofline, he said. However, the traditional "I" shape might get fatter.

Dimit, who said she likes "some aspects" of the preliminary sketches, said consultants were trying to blend the historical aspects of the building with the modern needs of a campus union.

She doesn't want anyone to panic, saying there are "so many steps between now and when the final decisions are made," with lots of opportunities for feedback from students, alumni and others.

"My sense is that there will be middle ground," she said. "If people like certain aspects of the design but say 'Oh my gosh, that big glass thing in the middle doesn't look appealing,'" it could be tweaked, she said.

"We just want to bring the building up to date to meet the expectations of our students and our alumni," Dimit said. "We want it to be that point of pride and to be relevant and to fulfill the mission and provide the services that are expected. We need to make sure we keep it as a viable entity."

Why now?

Given the state's financial mess, the Union's own Q&A addresses the question of why it would embark on such a major project now.

The feasibility study said comparisons with 14 similar institutions showed that the Illini Union falls far below average in space allocated to student programming, flexible lounge areas, student organization meeting spaces and conference or break-out space. The UI ranked third from the bottom in terms of "involvement space" per student, Uphoff said.

Students say the current building doesn't serve their needs, and alumni "have consistently told us that the Illini Union is not meeting their expectations as a 'point of pride' for our campus," the website says.

The building also needs critical upgrades after many years of deferred maintenance that have to be done with or without the broader renovation, officials said.

Some of the bigger-ticket items: a new roof ($2.87 million) and repairs to the exterior brick and stone ($5.15 million). Uphoff said the Union will "chip away" at maintenance projects over the next five years, which could reduce the project's cost down the road.

As currently planned, the 18-month project would be completed in phases so the building could remain partially open throughout.

Phase 1 would cost an estimated $176 million and include the south building, the center and the lowest level of the north building. Phase 2, which would cost $71 million, would cover the remainder of the north section.

Funding would come from private and corporate donations, the sale of bonds and student fees, though the exact share of each hasn't been determined. New income from the modernized conference facilities, renovated hotel rooms and dining facilities would help repay the bonds and reduce reliance on student fees, officials said.

The project has been presented to the chancellor but still needs formal approval from him and the trustees, Uphoff said.

"We have a lot of fundraising to do," first, Uphoff said.

The No. 1 academic building on the campus priority list is Altgeld Hall, which sits next door to the Illini Union. The university has asked the state for $43 million in capital funding to help with that $90 million renovation project, and Altgeld will also be part of the UI's upcoming fundraising campaign.

The Illini Union is on a separate campus projects list for "auxiliary facilities," those supported by student fees as opposed to state or tuition revenue, said Matthew Tomaszewski, associate provost for capital planning. Athletic facilities, such as the newest Memorial Stadium project announced recently by Athletic Director Josh Whitman, are yet a third category.

"They are distinct and separate" in terms of what pool of money can be used to pay off the bonds used to finance them, Tomaszewski said.

But the campus coordinates those projects to ensure that the overall vision is aligned, he said. The Illini Union project is among the top three auxiliary projects and probably in the top five overall for the campus, he said.

As part of the upcoming campaign, the UI will offer "naming rights" to individuals, corporations or organizations that donate to the Illini Union project, Dimit said.

She couldn't say whether that might include the building itself, but conference rooms, student program areas or even hotel rooms are possibilities. Alumni who were part of the Illinois Student Senate or Volunteer Illini Projects, for example, might contribute jointly to name a part of the building significant to them, she said.

"The Illini Union is such an important part of so many of our alumni memories," she said.

Through the years

The Illini Union existed long before its current incarnation on Green Street, at one time housed on the main floor of Illini Hall (then the YMCA). But UI President A.C. Willard wanted a place where students, faculty and staff could gather socially and professionally.

Since its opening in 1941, the Union has hosted (or been the backdrop for) countless speakers, musicians, comedy shows, anti-war demonstrations, protests of all stripes and even presidential candidates (starting with John F. Kennedy in 1960).

Here are some key moments in its history:

1939: Construction on the new I-shaped, colonial revival building begins, funded by a $525,820 Public Works Administration grant and a $656,000 loan that was later repaid through student fees. A focal point is the cupola featuring a clock funded by the class of 1878.
1941: The Illini Union officially opens its doors on Feb. 8.
1942: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attends the first anniversary and cuts the cake.
1951: Inaugural IUB International Fair is held.
1960: Construction on a $6.9 million south addition begins. It’s completed in 1963, expanding the Union from 137,000 square feet to 319,000 and creating an interior courtyard.
1965: A free speech area at the southeast corner of the Union opens.
1969: A crowd of 9,000 anti-war protesters march from the Union to West Side Park.
1971: “The Fountain of Diana”, a sculpture by Carl Milles, is moved from Chicago’s Time-Life building to the Union.
1971: With tensions running high over the Vietnam War, Quad Day is created to promote a sense of community, featuring a talent show, hot dog stand and student-faculty volleyball game.
1991: A project is approved to convert the outdoor courtyard to an indoor cafe, which opens in 1994.
1995: A $2.46 million renovation begins to convert the lower level from a cafeteria to a food court; it opens in 1997.
2016: $247 million renovation plan is announced on the Union’s 75th anniversary.

Source: University of Illinois, Illini Union

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Sid Saltfork wrote on June 04, 2017 at 9:06 am

The U of I asked the state for $43,000,000 to renovate Altgeld Hall.  At a time when other state universities are on the verge of closing their doors, the "Flagship" wants more state money.  Let the alums and foundations pay for the U of I lifestyle, not the taxpayers during a time of fiscal lunacy and pork barrel politics.  Sell, or lease the campus to a private university.  Call it CAT U, Mickey D's U, or Koch U.  Just separate it from the state university system.

If the state would do a full audit on the Flagship's expenditures, it would help answer what is essential, and what is waste.  Look at travel.  Look at "essential" university business versus paid mini-vacations.  Look at enrollment in the various academic programs.  Look at the purpose for land grant colleges, and what the Flagship has evolved into over the years.

Automan wrote on June 04, 2017 at 9:06 am
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What a huge waste of money on an unnecessary project. 

Rocky7 wrote on June 04, 2017 at 3:06 pm

If this happens, I trust the Illini Union will put fitted sheets on the mattresses in ALL its guest rooms.

Anonymous71 wrote on June 04, 2017 at 10:06 pm

All universities require renovations to buildings and ask for partial support from the state. Altgeld has not been touched in more than 50 years. From the project website, the projected cost of the renovations for Altgeld is expected to range between $90 and $100 million. Funding will come from the state, campus, and the generous support of alumni, friends, and corporate donors. If campus indeed asked for 43M then that is less than half the projected cost. Public-private partnerships can work well. By increasing capacity, more students who pay tuition can be admitted which would reduce the need for state support in the future. 

CommonSenseless wrote on June 05, 2017 at 8:06 am

A fitness center? Really? Doesn't this campus already boast 2 very modern (and expensive) student recreation centers? ARC & CRCE?
What about the numerous other athletic facilities? I hate to agree with Sid, but this school has an eating disorder with regard to tax dollars.

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