Student Union transformation nearly complete

The renovated UWM Student Union will bring new experiences as well as a new look to the 350,000-square-foot building at the heart of campus.

In describing the transformation, project leaders use words like vistas, natural light, openness, comfort and collaboration, as well as noting the brick-and-mortar changes. The building has more than 20,000 visitors a day during the academic year.

The union, which was built in phases in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, was showing its age in recent years. As a result, a $40.7 million upgrade was approved in the 2018-2019 state budget, and work started in July 2021. The project went into fast forward mode this summer when the building was mostly closed.

The building, which has been re-opening in phases since early August, will be almost fully open for students, staff, faculty and visitors by the start of the fall semester Sept. 5.

One of the goals of the project was to open up spaces in the building, said Brandon James, associate director-marketing for the union. The redesign brings in more natural light, opens up sight lines throughout the building, creates comfortable areas for students to work and collaborate and eliminates some of the labyrinth of dark hallways to make it easier for visitors to navigate.

“One of the big parts of this project was to really open up the commuter traffic lanes inside the building to make it much more pedestrian friendly,” James added.

The changes start at the front door with an enhanced Kenwood Boulevard entry. Deteriorating concrete in the area was replaced with a glass canopy and bright signage that welcomes visitors.  “The sign has the official name of our building, which is the UWM Student Union, in brilliant black and gold, backlit lettering,” James said.

Some of the floors have been renamed to be more consistent, a fact that will be reflected in the building’s signage.

Here’s a quick tour of the renovated building from James and Mike Schmit, interim director of the union, with updates on the few areas that aren’t yet open.

Street Level

The Kenwood and Maryland Avenue entries open onto this floor, formerly called the ground floor.

The student food pantry, which re-opened the third week of August, has been moved from the third floor to the West End Commons near the Maryland Avenue entrance for the convenience of students.

The area near Union Station, once called the Terrace, has been leveled, eliminating ramps, steps and handrails. This area will now include gathering and study areas for students and lead into the concourse, which has been opened up with natural light.

“Through the glass of the ballroom, you can see from the west side to the east side of the building which is pretty spectacular,” James said.

The only areas that won’t be up and running on the street level when the Union re-opens are the Studio Arts and Craft Center (scheduled to open Sept. 25) and the 8th Note coffee house (scheduled to open Oct. 9), according to Schmit.

Campus Level

This level, formerly called the first floor, is reached through the entrances off Spaights Plaza, the Maryland Avenue bridge and the east entryway (across from Mellencamp). This level includes food courts, the PantherCard office, the Panther Shop, the Books by eCampus bookstore and the UW Credit Union.

In addition, the newly added “Overlook” above the Kenwood Boulevard entrance will offer students spectacular views of the nearby neighborhood and places to relax, visit and study, Schmit said. “On clear days you can see the lake and downtown.”

A computer lab with 28 computers and a printing station available will be located close to the Tech Store. “Students can go buy peripherals if needed or even a whole new computer,” James said.

The Union Grind, also on this floor, won’t be open until the week of Sept. 11, but caffeine is available nearby, Schmit said. “We’re encouraging people to go over the (Maryland Avenue) bridge and visit the Grind at the LEC (Lubar Entrepreneurship Center,” Schmit said. “I think everybody at the LEC would love to have visitors come over and check out that space during the first week.”

Second Floor

This area now houses the Wisconsin Room and the Wisconsin Conference Center, with five adjacent meeting rooms and the UWM Cinema. A new student lounge, dubbed the L2, is scheduled to open Oct. 2, “That’s a new study space we’re really excited about,” Schmit said. Later this year, Wisconsin-themed art will be installed in the area.

Third floor

Offices for student organizations and union administration, many of which have temporarily moved to Bolton Hall, will be located in this area. Again, the emphasis has been on opening up the space, with a student involvement lounge for meetings and collaboration.

“This is a beautiful space that overlooks Spaights Plaza to the north,” Schmit said. The whole area used to be just long hallways and a lot of concrete block and square rooms. “Now it’s completely and totally transformed so it’s a much more open space for students to congregate and collaborate.”

A little-used concrete staircase that connects the floors on the east side of the building has been enclosed to make it more comfortable and convenient for visitors to use in bad weather. “Now people don’t have to go to the middle of the building to find a staircase or elevator,” James said.

Lower level/basement

The union recreation center, which is free to all students, is open.

The Gasthaus opening was delayed by unanticipated construction and electrical issues. The current goal is to open it up in mid-to late October.

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