Future of University housing renovations uncertain

By Genevieve Hummer, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 2, 2015

Over the past decade, the University has undertaken several significant efforts to improve residential life on campus through the Residential Life Initiatives, launched by University President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman in 2004.

According to University Housing, nearly 10,000 undergraduate students live in one of the University’s 18 residence halls and 1,480 individual apartments each year. When it comes to freshmen specifically, 97 percent elect to live in University housing during their first year, meaning most freshmen students eat, sleep, study and socialize in the University’s residential spaces.

Since the program was launched, the Residence Life Initiative has pumped millions of dollars into the University’s residence halls. West Quad Residential Hall’s reopening in the fall will mark the end of the initiative’s second phase, which included massive projects at East Quad and South Quad as well.

Though the University does not currently have the funding in place for a third phase of the project, several University administrators say North Campus dorms would likely be the focus of a future project.

“Now we’re doing the planning to think, well, if that ends in 2017, we have a little time now to think about what we want to do next," Loren Rullman, associate vice president for student affairs, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

Residential Life Initiatives

Citing the connection between living and learning, Coleman consistently identified improvements to residential life as one of the cornerstones of her presidency.

“I want our university to invest time, effort and funding in expanding and improving the residential experience of our students,” Coleman said in 2004. “We can find a host of new ways to provide a better environment for learning and living in our residence halls.”

When the plan for phase one of the RLI — titled the Comprehensive Housing Plan— was first presented to the University’s Board of Regents in September 2004, it included proposals for a new residence hall, renovations to two existing residence halls and upgrades for several campus dining facilities.

Rullman said a handful of factors have allowed the University to make significant improvements to campus structures over the past decade.

“We’ve had a very favorable bond market, construction market, very generous donors, very supportive regents and very supportive students who have participated,” Rullman said. “Those four factors over the last 10 years have been tremendous.”

Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall was the first large renovation completed under the RLI, during the first phase. In 2008, Mosher-Jordan reopened after a two-year, $65 million renovation. The renovation included a new, two-story dining center and set a precedent for campus dining facilities in terms of number of food options, scale and central location.

In 2010, construction of the $175 million North Quad Residential and Academic Complex was completed. The dorm, which is restricted to upperclassmen, was recently named one of the 30 most luxurious student housing buildings in the country by Best College Values. Before North Quad was completed, Bursley Hall, opened in 1967, was the newest residence hall at the University.

Kicking off the second phase of the project, East Quad and South Quad underwent multi-million dollar renovations, re-opening in Fall 2013 and Fall 2014, respectively. Both residence halls received refurbished community rooms, dining facilities and bathrooms.

This fall, West Quad, also a part of the initiative’s second phase, will see changes as well. Originally built in 1937, it will re-open following a $114.5 million makeover. The renovation will remove the dining center to provide space for additional community rooms. The expanded South Quad dining hall was designed to provide space for the resulting influx of Central Campus diners.

The RLI has been divided into distinct phases — phase one, from 2004 to 2012, included renovating the Hill Dining Center, Mosher-Jordan Hall, Stockwell Residence Hall, North Quad, Couzens Residence Hall and Alice Lloyd Residence Hall, while phase two has included the East, West and South Quad renovations.

Though Rullman said approximately one-third of the University’s housing inventory has yet to be fully renovated, the first round of improvements funded life safety systems for every residence hall.

“One of the things we’ve done in all of our buildings already are life safety improvements,” Rullman said. “So all of our buildings are incredibly safe, they just don’t all have brand new finishes in the bathroom and energy efficient fixtures and that kind of thing in all the bathrooms.”

The construction portion of phase two will conclude with the re-opening of West Quad, but the financing for phase two will carry into 2017. Financing for phase two entails a 3-percent increase on room and board rates.

“We say phasing so people understand you just can’t do it all at once,” said Rullman. “We have a commitment to make sure that all of our students over time live in good, healthy, productive facilities.”

Henry Baier, associate vice president for facilities and operations, added that many external observers don’t see the extensive planning that goes into the renovations.

“I think a lot of students don’t appreciate the length of time that it takes,” he said. “It’s not because we’re slow … they all take a while because you have to plan it out and get the construction underway. Even once we decide where we’re going there’s some start-up time that the public doesn’t see.”

Choosing buildings for renovation

Baier said the University uses a deferred maintenance program to keep up with campus renovations. Through the program, the University conducts regular surveys and tracks maintenance records to see which buildings are in need of upgrades. It is designed to include day-to-day maintenance procedures, planned renovations and major updates.

Baier said though the University has used a deferred maintenance program for a while, the lack of regular upkeep in the years prior to the RLI left many University buildings in need of renovation.

“What happened in residential life and housing, basically the housing system wasn’t re-investing in deferred maintenance,” Baier said. “It’s an easy thing to do, money gets tight, you don’t want to charge a student more to stay in University housing, so then the way you do that is you don’t keep it up, you just let stuff go. It just degrades, and all of a sudden you have to put a lot more money into it.”

Rullman said there is a common formula used to determine which buildings should be renovated. The University conducts facility condition assessments prior to renovations to determine which buildings are in need of updates. These assessments seek to determine both the state of the building and whether or not the University should keep the building.

Rullman said the buildings renovated in phases one and two of the RLI were chosen both because they were in poor condition and because the University saw them as “important, distinctive buildings.”

“The West Quads and the East Quads, they are iconic, they are architecturally significant, they have been here a very long time, their location is great, it would be unlikely we would not have residence halls there for the future,” Rullman said. “So once you know the condition, then you make a set of institutional policy decisions — in this case that we’re not going to abandon our legacy buildings.”

Baier added that in planning University renovations, they try to be flexible because unexpected factors such as increasing construction and bond costs or large donations often impact which buildings are chosen for renovation. He referenced in particular University alum Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, who has donated significantly to the school. Munger recently contributed $110 million to the construction of a new graduate residence on central campus.

“Along comes Charlie Munger and he gives us $20 million to help fix up the Lawyers Club,” Baier said. “That had a $28 million deferred maintenance on our facility condition assessment and we had a donor who was interested in contributing $20 million toward an existing building to fix it up, that’s unheard of. We might have gone and done something else, whatever it might have been, but here’s $20 million and it made it a big priority.”

After the plans were released, many graduate students expressed concerns related to the cost and design of the project. However, during a forum in 2013, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, noted the nature of the donation somewhat limits the University’s ability to make changes.

“If this were ‘just us’ and the funding were ‘just us,’ we would have some different kinds of options,” Harper said. “But I think when you are in partnership … you make some agreements about what you’re going to offer, then we have to honor those agreements.”

Future renovations

Though Rullman said phase two of the RLI will conclude in the near future because all the allocated money has been used, the University still plans to continue renovating.

Rullman said the University will conduct facility condition assessments and student satisfaction surveys, on top of evaluating the bond market and interest rates, to determine which buildings will be renovated in the next phase.

“We don’t know what we’re going to renovate next, but we think all of the buildings are safe and adequate, we just need to improve the experience,” he said.

Recent comments from administrators, as well as from the University’s Board of Regents, have suggested that North Campus might be the next area to undergo construction.

In an October interview with The Michigan Daily, Harper said it’s likely that if a new undergraduate dorm were constructed in the future, North Campus would be a potential location. She cited the decreasing availability of open Central Campus property, and the desire to improve the community on North Campus.

At a fireside chat in March , University President Mark Schlissel acknowledged that the quality of life on North Campus is an issue that has been brought up at nearly every fireside chat in recent months.

“The residential life is in the midst of a 10- or 15-year effort to really upgrade residential life, living and eating on campus,” he said. “The next frontier is the North Campus.”

At last month’s Board of Regents meeting, the regents approved two North Campus construction proposals — schematic designs for the North Campus Grove project and a $13 million renovation of the North Campus Recreation Building.

During the March event, Schlissel said the University wants to improve North Campus so that it is on par with the rest of the campus.

“The ultimate goal is to make the North Campus as dense and vibrant as the Central Campus, and to have the businesses surrounding North Campus sort of grow up in a way that living up there won’t require you to be down here to socialize,” he said.

Baier said the University is working on plans to increase development of North Campus.

“We’ve actually done a lot of work on North Campus in terms of early planning and we have some ideas about what we’d like it to be,” he said. “It’s more of an aspiration, it’s not concrete in terms of what it would be.”

Both Baier and Rullman noted that several renovations and additions have taken place on North Campus in recent years — Mitchell Field, the Fireside Café in Pierpont Commons, the Walgreen Drama Center, the Stamps Auditorium and M City, a network of roads used to test automated vehicle systems.

There are also plans for several North Campus projects aside from the grove and the NCRB renovations. The construction of an addition to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance is currently underway, and there are plans to add on to the Art and Architecture Building. In addition, the Bursley Dining Hall will receive new furniture and carpet over the summer.

Rullman said there has been an emphasis on improving the density of North Campus.

“There’s a lot going on up there … and we need to do more, frankly, but what we’re doing now and what we’ve done over the last eight, nine, 10 years is try to make it a much more livable place for students, for faculty, for staff,” Rullman said. “I think when you look at all the improvements on balance, it’s doing that. The challenge is it is such a big campus and until you get this density you sort of can’t notice it.”