The University of Minnesota’s nearly $64.23 million Bell Museum project is nearly back to its original size and has a bigger budget as it heads for a Board of Regents review this week.
Late last year, the university released plans showing a 32 percent reduction in square footage for the new Bell Museum of Natural History on the university’s St. Paul campus, a change that irritated some project supporters.
But plans for a bigger Bell are back on track, thanks in part to the museum’s advisory board and other stakeholders, who pressed U of M planners in recent months to restore the original size.
On Thursday, the facilities committee of the Board of Regents is expected to approve a schematic design that bumps the project back up to just under 90,000 square feet on a 5-acre site at the southwest corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues.
The committee will also release updated renderings of the new museum, which will rise up on a site currently occupied by a U of M bee research lab. A new bee lab is planned for the southeast corner of Larpenteur and Gortner avenues in St. Paul.
Earlier plans slashed the building’s size from 92,500 to roughly 62,500 square feet, much to the displeasure of project advocates like state Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, one of the museum’s biggest boosters in the Legislature.
University documents said at the time that the change would allow the museum to put more of the budget toward “enhanced exhibits” and other “visitor experience interpretive components.”
But Hausman, the DFL lead on the House Capital Investment Committee, said a smaller building was inconsistent with the project goal of being able to accommodate more school groups.
“All around it was strange decision-making,” Hausman said. “It took more work than it needed to and I think it cost money, because now it has been redesigned a couple of times.”
Hausman said the advisory board “deserves enormous credit” for getting the project back to its original size. “They worked and worked and didn’t give up and didn’t give up, and finally there was some movement,” she said.
With the changes, the project’s budget is going up by about $6.75 million. In July U of M President Eric Kaler recommended the budget increase. University spokesman Tim Busse said this week that the budget increase recommended by Kaler is essentially “a done deal.”
To finance the larger budget, the university will “maximize” the $3.5 million in recurring state appropriations made available by the Legislature in 2014 and use existing U of M funds, Kaler said in a letter to project supporters.
Lee Pfannmuller, chair of the Bell Museum advisory board, said the additional $6.75 million was a significant step that “enabled us to move forward in a positive way.”
Construction is expected to begin in spring or summer 2016 and finish in 2018, according to the museum’s website.
Finance & Commerce first reported plans for a smaller Bell Museum last December.
Hausman led the effort to secure state money for the long-planned museum, which will replace an aging, outdated building constructed in 1940 at 10 Church St. SE in Minneapolis.
The 2014 Legislature approved a financing plan that uses state-paid debt service to pay off $51.5 million in university-let bonds for the museum. The project also includes $6 million in private funding.
One thing the additional money allows for is a full basement, a key element that was scrapped in earlier plans.
In a July 21 letter to U of M planning staff, the advisory board chaired by Pfannmuller identified some of its priorities for the project, including the addition of a full basement, sufficient exhibit space and adequate event space.
The basement would hold mechanical systems, storage space, offices and an exhibit preparation area, thus freeing up space on the museum’s first and second floors for exhibits, the board said.
Pfannmuller said in an interview that the elimination of the basement was “short-sighted at best,” but she praised Kaler for recommending the additional funding to enhance the project.
In a July 25 letter to museum stakeholders, Kaler said the additional funding allows for the basement, larger permanent exhibits, another 2,000 square feet of unfinished space, support space for catering, and more.
“With these additions, the elements that are either necessary for the success of the museum or that would be difficult or impossible to add later (such as a basement) are addressed now, are funded now, and will proceed into design and construction immediately — without regard to additional fundraising,” Kaler wrote.
The new Bell Museum will include galleries for exhibits, a planetarium, classrooms, retail and food service, flexible shell space, and administrative and support spaces, according to U of M documents released Friday.
Planned site improvements include pollinator gardens, water reuse ponds, parking, buried power lines and “the potential for additional enhanced educational amenities,” the U of M said.
The project team includes Chicago-based Perkins + Will, which has an office in Minneapolis (design), and Roseville-based McGough Construction.
The budget includes about $43.48 million for construction, nearly $7.25 million for “non-construction” building costs, $10.5 million for exhibit design and fabrication, and $3 million for diorama relocation, according to U of M documents.