University regents hear UM Rochester campus plan
MINNEAPOLIS — A University of Minnesota Rochester plan that would transform part of downtown Rochester into a 10-acre, pedestrian-only campus had its first hearing Thursday before a committee of University of Minnesota regents.
And though most of the regents' queries were practical in nature and even pointed at times, the overall tenor of the questions appeared to be supportive of the plan.
"There's definitely a mood of support," said U of M regent Dean Johnson after the meeting. As a former DFL Senate majority leader, Johnson supported the city's aspirations for a branch campus when it was before the Legislature. "You can't make a 100 percent prediction, but I'd be very surprised next month that it wouldn't be approved."
UMR's master plan, first unveiled Tuesday, outlines the development of what officials are calling a "community campus" along First Avenue Southwest that would evolve over a 20-year span.
As part of the first of five phases, the plan calls for building a $60 million, 126,000-square-foot academic building in the northern half of the proposed campus site along Sixth Street Southwest. Graphic representations of the plan depict seven buildings in total, including the Rochester Area Family YMCA, eventually inhabiting the 10-acre site.
"From the outset, we have been planning and building a campus that's part of the community both physically and programmatically," UMR Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle told regents of the facilities and operations committee. "It will be a campus on the park, a thoroughfare between downtown and a large green space, or Soldiers Memorial Field, that benefits both students and the community."
The facilities committee will vote next month on whether to approve the UMR master plan and fold it into the university's six-year capital plan. If it does, the capital plan would then be voted on by the full board of regents the following day.
Inclusion in the U's capital plan would mean that UMR officials could begin the pre-design process for the first building and take the first steps toward developing the downtown campus. Officials project construction on the first building could begin in six to eight years.
"That is a very significant event," said Lehmkuhle about the regents' votes next month. Lehmkuhle became UMR's first chancellor in 2007 after the branch campus was established with a focus on the health sciences.
The UMR plan could potentially launch the university on a very different growth trajectory than the one it so far has occupied. Up until now, all the properties that UMR occupies — the top two floors of the Shops at University Square in downtown Rochester, most of 318 Commons in southwest Rochester and the top floor of Broadway Hall — are leased by UMR. Under the new plan outlined by UMR officials, the first academic building on the campus site would be the first owned and operated by UMR.
"You're functioning awful well with leased facilities," asked regent Linda Cohen. "Why the move from the leasing of facilities, which seems to be working pretty well, to the whole idea of more buildings and having an actual district."
Lehmkuhle said part of the reason is simply ensuring that the UMR has a future home. He noted that some of the long-term Destination Medical Center plans under consideration show that the space currently occupied by UMR "is no longer there. So we have to plan accordingly in terms of trying to make sure we have a location and a place."
Lehmkuhle added that developer lease agreements could also serve as the model for future buildings for the new campus, including the new academic building.
The campus zone would be bordered by Soldiers Memorial Field Park on the west and south sides, by Broadway on the east and Sixth Street Southwest on the north.
UMR currently educates about 800 students, and the proposed campus envisions serving between 1,400 and 1,500 students.
Lehmkuhle and other UMR officials have repeatedly implied through their statements that that they won't be applying a "if you build it, they will come" approach to campus development. Just the opposite. Growth in student enrollment will fuel and drive development of the campus, they said.
"The whole driver behind this is student enrollment," Regent Johnson said. "And we look carefully at student enrollment. I mean, if those numbers were decreasing, we'd begin to lose interest. Enrollments are going up. We're interested."