Students Approve $100 Million Renovation of Campus Hot Spot

November 25, 2008

When it opened in 1967, the University Center quickly became the campus “living room” – offering students the latest in lounging comfort, dining and entertainment options.

The facility continues to serve a vital role for students, faculty and staff. But after more than 40 years without a major renovation, it needs a facelift to bring it up-to-date and more in line with the vision of the University of Houston as a top-tier institution, said Keith Kowalka, executive director of the center.

A $100 million, student-led plan to bring enhanced dining options, updated technology and expanded meeting, study and lounge space gained steam when a majority of student voters approved a fee increase to pay for renovations.

“I think that this presents a compelling case on behalf of students that they want to have a much improved university center,” Kowalka said. “This will be much more on par with what other campuses have.”

The UC Transformation Project must also be approved by the UH System Board of Regents, the Texas Legislature and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. But the proposal passed its first major hurdle on Nov. 18 and 19, when 77 percent of the 4,161 students who voted in the campus-wide election supported the plan.

The upgrade, which would be performed in phases and completed by 2014, would include additional study and meeting spaces for student organizations, a centralized conference center, more retail and dining options, new outdoor lounging spaces, an outdoor amphitheater and a sleek new design.

“We wanted something that would look like the sort of next-generation facility that is really going to make people proud to be a Cougar,” said Micah Kenfield, a senior linguistics major who served as co-chair of the UC 2010 Initiative – the student-led initiative to renovate the University Center.

The new center will improve the reputation of the University, and offer a better first impression for incoming students, he said.

“(The current facility) looks very dated,” Kenfield said. Although it is very functional, and utilitarian in design, it looks a little too much “like a strip mall from 1965,” he said.

The improvement project would be paid for with student fees, which would gradually increase from the current $35 a semester fee to $160 a semester in 2014. The first $25 a semester increase won’t go into effect until 2010.

Though the increase is significant, the eventual return on the investment will be well worth it, Kenfield said.

“We’ve been telling people it’s their first contribution as an alumnus,” he said. “A lot of the students feel like it is not that much to ask for with all we are giving them in exchange.”

The renovations will bring new life to the University Center, which first opened its doors Feb. 13, 1967. At the time, the $5 million building was considered state-of-the-art, with a 1,200- person ballroom, a 500-seat cafeteria, a formal lounge for entertaining and receptions, and a variety of retail options. It was funded with a $6 student services fee and served a student population of about 20,000 students.

In 1973, the center was expanded with the openings of the UC Underground, and the UC Satellite.

Over the years, the center has undergone small upgrades and enhancement projects, but it has never gone through a major renovation. The UC Satellite was substantially upgraded in 2001, as a result of damage caused by Tropical Storm Allison in June of that year.

As proposed, construction would take place in three phases, allowing the University Center to continue operations. The first phase of construction would begin in May 2011.

Students will make a proposal to the UH System Board of Regents in February, with their final consideration coming in June. Also in February, students will begin to lobby the Texas Legislature, which would have to approve a fee increase.

Kenfield said he is hoping all necessary approvals will be received by July, in time for the search for a professional design team to begin in fall 2009.

Michelle Hillen