Reitz Union redesigned with students in mind
Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 7:10 p.m.
For 46 years, thousands of students have walked, danced, displayed posters, gathered petition signatures, and run Student Government campaigns on the Colonnade connecting the J. Wayne Reitz Union and the Constans Theater.
Come July, bulldozers will start demolishing the Colonnade and the flight of offices overhead to make room for a $75 million, 100,000-square-foot, three-story addition that will connect the two iconic buildings that make up the heart of student life and activities at UF. Plans also include renovation of 20,000 square feet of existing space.
For Dave Kratzer, vice president for student affairs, it's a poignant and personal event. When he was hired as the director of the Reitz Union in 1986, building the offices over the colonnade was his first project.
Kratzer said the first thing he did when he got to UF was to put in the offices above the Colonnade. "So I guess I'm the right person to take it down," he said.
The project, several years in the planning stages, is needed to add space for a student body that has grown well beyond the Reitz Union's capacity. Since the Reitz Union was built in 1967, UF's student body has grown from 19,000 students to 50,000. Nearly 1,000 student organizations call the union home. More than 100 student groups use the Colonnade's patio as a makeshift rehearsal space.
The new building also will bring under one roof several student services that are now spread across campus: Student Activities and Involvement, Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, the Center for Leadership and Service, GatorWell Health Promotion, the Career Resource Center and Student Government. And it will have two dance studios.
"The (architectural) consultant said this is the dancingest campus it has ever seen," Kratzer said. "We said OK, we'll provide a couple of places for that, too."
Construction is expected to begin in the fall and be completed by 2015.
Morgan Conrad, a freshman from Jacksonville who will be returning to UF next year, said she's heard about the project. She plans to get more involved in student organizations and Student Government when she returns for her sophomore year, and she sees the need for more space.
"Only thing I'm sad about is I'm going to see construction for the rest of my time here," Conrad said.
Students in mind
The building's new design has had the students in mind first and foremost, said Sara Tanner, director of marketing for Student Affairs. The design team and Reitz Union team gathered input from hundreds of students, she said.
"They had tables set up where everyone coming to use the facility could state their thoughts and needs," Tanner said.
The teams also polled the student organizations that use the union regularly. They found that students needed space to study, eat and hang out.
That input went into designing a facility that celebrates those aspects of student life, while also giving it features that make it unique to UF, she said.
The architects designed a building that evokes the UF mascot, the alligator. The north entrance with its variegated glass panels resembles the mouth and teeth of a gator. The atrium is shaped like a gator's head. Inside, an awning made of wood will resemble the reptile's underbelly. The serpentine structure curving around the amphitheater on the south side will look like a gleaming glass tail.
Most of the design was left to the students and the designers. But one thing Kratzer insisted on was that the building have a portal to symbolize the students' passage into adult life and self-discovery through leadership, service and engagement.
What the designers came up with exceeded his expectations, Kratzer said. The final design shows a staircase that descends through a portal to connect the first, second and third floors.
"Hopefully it leads to discovery of who you are," he said of students' experience at UF.
The renovation also will tie the existing areas together with the new.
"Lots of spaces in the union look good," Kratzer said. "We want it all to look like it fits together, and looks new."
Kratzer also wants each facility to be attractive to outside groups to rent for events. For instance, every group wants to rent out the Grand Ballroom, built in 2002 to accommodate up to 800 for a banquet event. They often lease the Rion Ballroom as a second choice.
The remodeling includes plans to renovate the Rion Ballroom so that it is just as desirable as the Grand Ballroom, and not a reluctant second choice. They will drop the ceiling and turn the existing Rion hall into meeting space and build a brand new Rion Hall on top of the existing one, Kratzer said.
The unique environmental surroundings of the Reitz Union were taken into consideration by the building's designers, Kratzer said. It was important that the addition didn't encroach onto the North Lawn or the amphitheater and pond to the south.
Kratzer said he was keen to reduce the Union's carbon footprint as well.
"Take an old building like the Reitz Union, it's leaking chilled air everywhere," he said.
Trane conducted an energy audit to determine how much the university could save by retrofitting it with double-paned windows, LED lights and new coolers and other mechanical equipment, Kratzer said. Trane estimated it would cost $7.5 million to retrofit the Reitz Union, which would save at least 50 percent on its electric bill — about $500,000 a year.
Under an energy savings contract with Trane, UF would get a 15-year loan to pay for the equipment installation and pay that loan off with the money it saves on electricity, UF Chief Financial Officer Matt Fajack said.
"Trane is guaranteeing we'll save enough to make the debt service payment," Fajack said. "Anything above that, we get that savings, too."
The proposal goes to the board of trustees for approval when it meets in June.
The growing student population combined with growing maintenance issues led Student Government to push for a new student union starting in 2009. A "Making It Reitz" campaign was created and, by 2012, nearly 5,000 students had signed a petition asking for a new building.
Almost all the costs are being covered by student activity fees collected over the years. Several years ago, $50 million in Activity and Service fees were set aside for the project (from a $17.55 per credit hour fee). The university kicked in another $5 million, and the Capital Improvement Trust Fund currently has $11.6 million (which comes from a $6.76 per credit hour fee).
UF administrators must come up with another means to cover the remaining $8.4 million after the Florida Legislature shot down a request to borrow $33.3 million against the Capital Improvement Trust Fund. The money left over from that loan would have also financed renovation of Newell Hall as a study center. That project is dead for now.
UF is actively looking for other sources to make up the $8.4 million shortfall, including private donations. "We are exploring a number of different sources," Fajack said. "It is too early to tell what those might be."
Kratzer said he's committed to finishing the project as designed. "This project has got so much passion behind it, I am going to do everything to make that whole."