Nearly $100M facility would require razing century-old Loras Hall

By Jane McClure

Plans are taking shape for another University of Saint Thomas science and engineering building, with a focus on the STEAM approach to learning. Almost 40 neighborhood residents and members of the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee (WSNAC) discussed preliminary ideas for the building on August 11.

The building’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) programs and activities would have a strong focus on technical and digital literacy. University officials see it as a cutting-edge way to prepare students for careers in a wide range of fields and provide a unique educational option in the Twin Cities.

Plans for construction of the new Saint Thomas science and engineering building would require the demolition of Loras Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus.

Amy McDonough, the university’s chief of staff, said UST is taking its ideas for the new facility to neighborhood groups this summer. Meetings have already been held with the Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association and the Union Park District Council’s Land Use Committee. The Macalester-Groveland Community Council’s Housing and Land Use Committee will review the plans on August 19. (Check macgrove.org for online meeting details.)

About half of the approximately $100 million cost of the building has already been raised, according to university president Julie Sullivan. The building plans could be ready by November. The preliminary location is on Summit Avenue west of the university’s Frey Science and Engineering Center.

The new facility would allow for hands-on learning and would also have a small performance area, art gallery and exhibit space to blend the arts, sciences and engineering. It would also allow for the addition of a nursing program and a college of health.

Construction of the building would require the demolition of Loras Hall. It would also mean converting Parking Lot M to green space to create a quad similar to the one on the main campus. It is unclear how many parking spaces would be lost.

 

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UST has parking capacity greater than what is required in its conditional use permit from the city. The university added about 200 parking spaces with the construction of new dormitories on the main campus, and has capacity to add two levels and 300 more spaces to the Anderson Parking Ramp on the west campus. However, adding to the ramp would require reopening the school’s conditional use permit, something some neighbors are reluctant to do.

The new building plans and a demolition permit for Loras Hall would require a review by the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, since the site is within the Summit Avenue West Historic District. Loras was built as a Saint Paul Seminary dormitory in 1894 and is one of the oldest buildings on campus.

At the earliest, construction on the new building would begin in spring 2022 and end in fall 2024.

Adding STEAM facilities has been a priority at Saint Thomas for the past five years. The facility is mentioned in the university’s current master plan, which UST’s board of trustees approved in November 2016. The plan calls for a 137,000-square-foot facility, though the size is still being determined.

A map showing the proximity of Loras Hall and Parking Lot M to the university's existing science halls.

The master plan also refers to the possibility of moving Loras Hall 100 feet to the west. However, UST vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer Mark Vansguard said that has an estimated cost of $13 million to $18 million.

UST officials emphasized the new facility would not mean an increase in overall enrollment. The university has seen its undergraduate engineering enrollment rise from around 200-300 students in 1997 to 1,600 today. Dean of engineering Don Weinkauf said there is a high demand for STEAM classes. Last fall, more than 90 companies sent representatives to the university to interview students for engineering jobs and internships.

The new facility would allow for hands-on learning and would also have a small performance area, art gallery and exhibit space to blend the arts, sciences and engineering. It would also allow for the addition of a nursing program and a college of health.

During the WSNAC meeting on August 11, questions from neighbors centered on the potential loss of trees, and traffic and parking impacts. Others asked about the university’s future in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and how higher education is faring generally. University officials expressed confidence in the success of the programs the STEAM facility would support.

As of now, UST plans a mix of in-person and online classes this fall. However, that could change with the state of the pandemic.

Saint Thomas would next move toward developing the complex and its programs with employers and other partners, hosting design sessions with executives from top recruiting firms, and seeking comments from students and staff.

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