Construction zone: The business case for Union South

photo courtesy of CG Schmidt

Anyone who remembers the stolid concrete facade and aloof interiors of the old Union South — which to many a weary studier suffered greatly in comparison to the vibrant gemutlichkeit of the iconic Memorial Union — is sure to be tantalized by the prospect of the bigger, more modern, presumably more inviting (and fun) new Union South.

But while the old union, which was razed in 2009 following a vote of the student body that cleared the way for the construction of the new $94.8 million, 276,664-square-foot facility, seemed to have a knack for repelling students and community members alike, the new union is rolling out the red carpet for everyone, including members of Madison’s business community.

(External groups can use the facility, but they have to be sponsored by one or more university departments. For more information, call the central reservation office at 262-2511 or e-mail to events@union.wisc.edu.)

In addition to the numerous recreational features, entertainment and retail spaces, and dining and sitting areas, the facility will include several features that will undoubtedly hold tremendous appeal for the local business community. Perhaps the jewel in the new union’s crown — from a business standpoint at least — will be its spacious conference center, but the new facility promises to be very accommodating in other ways as well. Everything from its meeting rooms and activity spaces to its 60-room boutique hotel will signal that the new union represents more than just a token gesture of goodwill from the university.

“The hotel, certainly, is a public facility where anyone can rent a room,” said Dave Albrecht, project executive for C.G. Schmidt, the firm that’s handling construction management for the project. “Public parking is going to be available. We have 175 underground parking stalls. The 900-seat conference center is available for public use, as are all the meeting rooms.

“There are 13 meeting rooms in the building of varying sizes, in addition to the several restaurants [and the] market space inside the building, and then there is space on the exterior of the building as well, along Orchard Street, where we are expecting outdoor markets to be held.”

Business and pleasure

Shayna Hetzel was president of the Wisconsin Union during the 2006-07 school year and started the union design committee. She was also a leader in getting the union referendum passed and spent three years as project manager after graduating from the UW.

Hetzel said that while student input was instrumental in selecting design features and food and retail preferences (by her recollection, more than 36,000 students have been involved in the process), community input also played an important role in completing the project.

“We view it as a community project that’s student-focused,” stated Hetzel. “The broader public union members, whether they’re part of the Madison community or the global community, they were also involved in surveys and had different opportunities to interact with the architects and engineers.”

Hetzel noted that one of the aims of the project was to create a space that felt welcoming to the community. The aforementioned sitting areas include outdoor terraces, an outdoor pavilion, pocket lounges, a sun garden, and an “information commons.”

“I think that was one of the things that we recognized in the difference between the Memorial Union and the old Union South is that there wasn’t a lot of attachment or community involvement in the old Union South,” she said. “The Memorial Union is a very vibrant community destination. We wanted to make that part of the Union South’s architectural and programmatic fabric.”

Of course, while a conference center, meeting rooms, and a modern, on-site hotel should be a solid draw and will go a long way toward making the new Union South a reliable business hub, creating the sort of energy and kinetic buzz that make people want to stay may be just as important.

To that end, planners have included a 350-seat movie theater, an art gallery, climbing and bouldering walls, eight bowling lanes, billiard tables and other table games, a coffeehouse and wine bar, a pizzeria, a pan-Asian restaurant, and campus amenities such as UW Credit Union ATMs and visitor and information areas.

It’s no secret, of course, that the area adjacent to Camp Randall, where the union sits, is strongly identified with Badger Saturdays, which are a draw not only for students but also for every woman, man, businessperson, and beast (if you count Bucky) in the Greater Madison area.

“The shape and function of the building, in many ways, was designed … I’m not going to say specifically for those events, but it certainly was taken into account,” said Albrecht. “There are several outdoor terraces, elevated outdoor terraces on the building, which overall have a central bowl.”

Opening day

Right now, the union is gearing up for its April 15 grand opening, which will give the public its first long look at the facility. Then in May, it will host the National Science Olympiad, which should give a pretty solid indication of how suitable the facility will be for hosting large conferences and conventions.

“That event is really what drives the completion date for the project and the grand opening, so that it’s open and operational and everybody involved in the operation has a little bit of time to get up to speed,” said Albrecht.

But the union’s amenities and conference spaces won’t be the only things contributing to its ultramodern environment. In 2006, when students voted on whether to renovate the Memorial Union and replace Union South, the rallying cry among supporters of the initiative was “Preserving the Past, Building the Future.” Part of that effort involved building a “green” facility where the old Union South once stood (in fact, the new Union South website touts the new Wisconsin Union Hotel as an “eco-friendly” facility).

“From a sustainability standpoint, we’re tracking on this project to get LEED Gold certification,” said Albrecht. “LEED Silver was the initial goal, and at this point, we anticipate we would be able to get gold rather than silver. That’s not final, but that’s what our current indications are.”

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