UWM eyeing $129 million renovation of student union

UWM officials say the student union at least needs $35 million in capital maintenance in the next 10 years.

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:57 am

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee plans to seek approval for a $129 million project upgrading its student union, a somewhat scaled back version of previous plans for the building.

UWM officials say the student union at least needs $35 million in capital maintenance in the next 10 years.

The new plan calls for renovations to around 64 percent of the building and the demolition and new construction of the remaining 36 percent. The project would also slightly reduce the size of the 328,000-square-foot building.

UWM’s student union dates back to 1956 and was built out over a period of roughly 30 years. The university has worked with consultants three times – in 2008, 2012 and 2014 – on potential solutions for a building given a “D” rating for function and “F” for condition, according to Robin Van Harpen, UWM vice chancellor for finance and administrative affairs.

“We believe there is no cheaper solution we can propose,” Van Harpen told the UW System Board of Regents capital planning and budget committee, adding “our staff bends over backwards” to keep the building functioning and the poor condition isn’t from a lack of maintenance.

The student union currently needs an estimated $35 million in capital maintenance over the next 10 years and the university plans to increase student segregated fees for capital projects from $100 to $150 per year starting in fiscal 2018 to fund the work.

If UWM is to move forward with the upgrade project, the funding would have to come from program revenue and segregated fees, not general fund borrowing like many other university projects. To pay for the project, Van Harpen said UWM would have to increase student segregated fees to $398 per year, although she noted the already planned increase would be diverted from maintenance to the upgrades if it is enumerated in the state budget.

“We are very acutely aware of the impact of this project on students,” Van Harpen said. “If we don’t do this project we’ll be left with a failing building that is so central to our students.”

She said 22,000 people come through the building on a given day during the school year, potentially making it one of the highest trafficked facilities in the UW System. About 36 percent of UWM students live on campus or in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the university. That leaves nearly two-thirds commuting from the surrounding communities and many need a place to go between classes.

Students have previously signed off on the upgrades through a referendum and other groups on campus who use program revenue understand the importance of the student union project, Van Harpen said.

“Our students have supported it every time we’ve gone to them,” she said.

The version students voted on in 2012 called for a $160 million project and a January 2015 UW System capital planning document called for $155 million over two phases starting in the upcoming budget biennium.

Van Harpen said UWM would be giving students a chance to vote on the project in October, incorporating it in registration for spring classes to boost the number of responses. Ideally, the university would engage an architect for design in the spring and bring the project to the board of regents for approval in August 2018, she said.

The upgrades would still have to make it through the state budget process before moving forward with detailed design and construction.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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