Campus tree leaves project in limbo
It is difficult to put a price tag on history but easy to figure out how much it will cost if the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire scraps its student center design to save a tree.
“Right now, I’ve heard a redesign could delay the project by six months to a year, and the delay could cost anywhere from $1.5 to $2.5 million,” said Michael Umhoefer, president of the UW-Eau Claire student body.
“And adjusting the budget in any way for this project is going to be extremely difficult.”
Students last year approved a referendum for the $48.8 million Davies Center on the UW-Eau Claire campus, and preliminary design work began last fall. But with designs for the project at 35 percent, Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich this week told the steering committee for the student center to come up with new designs that preserve the Historic Council Oak tree on the campus.
Levin-Stankevich said the project needs alternatives because the Council Oak would be too close to the new building and might be damaged.
The original Council Oak was estimated at about 300 years old and represented the meeting spot for truces and gatherings between regional American Indian tribes, said university spokesman Mike Rindo. An artist’s rendering of the tree, he said, is now part of the UW-Eau Claire crest.
In 1987, a windstorm destroyed the original tree. The university planted a new tree on the site and dedicated it in a ceremony with members of several Wisconsin tribes.
The tree has been a part of planning discussions since November, Rindo said, but the administration decided to seek alternative designs after interest in protecting the tree surged this fall.
Umhoefer said that’s frustrating, considering the design work is eight months in.
“Obviously we have to be respectful of the tree and site, but, frankly, we’re dealing with a lack of communication from the administration,” he said. “This could have been stirred up earlier. If anyone had looked at the design layouts earlier this year, they could have said something.
“But the fact is, two weeks ago, about 95 percent of the students here didn’t even know where this tree was.”
Rindo said the university’s attention to the tree’s history and relevance to the school has slipped, but the History Department now is trying to increase campus awareness of the tree.
“Look, it’s not like we’re starting from scratch,” he said. “This is the natural progression of a project, and it happens in almost any construction project. We’re at the 35 percent point. The final design still has to be approved by the UW Board of Regents and the state Building Commission.
“It’s a natural place to pause and see if there are alternatives.”
Reconfiguring the building will be difficult. The site is close to a creek on campus, so there already are state-required setbacks to follow. It also is bordered on the east side by Phillips Science Hall, which is slated for expansion.
Representatives from Madison-based Bray Associates Architects Inc., Madison, the firm designing the project, were unavailable for comment Thursday.
Not only would the new design have to accommodate the tree, but planners also must take into account utility routes for water, sewer and electricity. Increases in student fees are covering the entire cost of the building, Umhoefer said, so any added costs from redesign or delays could cut into the $48.8 million budgeted because the project cannot use taxpayer money.
Umhoefer said Levin-Stankevich promised a private, capital campaign if there are any extraneous costs prompted by the alternative designs.
Levin-Stankevich was unavailable for comment Thursday, but Rindo said a private campaign is not under consideration yet.
“It’s still too early,” he said. “We don’t know what the costs are going to be, but we’re committed to being good stewards of the students’ money and getting this project in at $48.8 million or less.”