Assembly Hall in need of renovations, University says

By Se Young Lee

Gary O’Brien, talk show host at Champaign’s 1400 AM WDWS station, has been in a love affair with the Assembly Hall. He has stood with thousands of people, cheering and clapping for the singers, performers and athletes that came to town. And he put in almost two decades’ worth of hard work and sweat to bring the best shows that he could.

“Assembly Hall is my right arm,” O’Brien said. “I love the place. And I hear from people in the business that it is still one of the greatest buildings ever today.”

Assembly Hall, built in 1963 and owned by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been the center of cultural activities in the Champaign-Urbana community as well as for the students on campus. More than 500,000 attended 96 events, 32 of them entertainment events touring nationally, in the 2002-2003 booking year at the arena. Until the United Center was constructed in Chicago, it was the biggest venue of its kind in the state of Illinois.

But O’Brien, University administrators and student leaders are all in agreement that Assembly Hall is in need of many renovations. It regularly draws complaints from broadcasting crews about the lack of lighting on the floor. Bathroom lines are woefully long, corridors are often jammed with people and most parts of the building are impossible for patrons with disabilities to access. And the building heats up during the warmer months to a point where patrons are drenched in sweat.

The arena has gone through several repairs and upgrades in the past. Kevin Ullestad, director of Assembly Hall, said the last renovation took place in 1998. $12 million was allocated to add more spacing in the backstage area for dressing rooms, dining facilities, storage areas, load-in ramps and office space.

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    But Gene Barton, associate chancellor for student affairs, said the building requires another, more thorough facelift for it to remain a viable venue in the future.

    “I couldn’t imagine the place being the exact way it is 20 years from now,” Barton said. “When your children come to school here 20 years later, I hope it isn’t the way it is today.”

    Ullestad said that while the facility meets the requirement for the total amount of seating accessible to those with disabilities, in accordance to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the seats are all concentrated at the top of the A section – the most expensive seating section in the arena. And it is impossible to get patrons with disabilities to the floor level, the most coveted area of the hall during concerts due to its proximity to the stage, because there are no ramps or elevators.

    Barton said other identified needs include improving the congestion in the corridors, increasing capacity for the bathrooms, improving the utility system and increasing areas for concessions.

    The University commissioned Ellerbe Becket Architects & Engineers Inc., a Minneapolis firm, to conduct a study on the feasibility of renovations in 2002. The firm estimated that the aforementioned renovations would cost between $61.9 million to $66.8 million.

    While most of the proposed renovations have been accepted by both the University administration and student organizations as necessary for the long haul, there has been dispute over the feasibility – and the need – to install an air-conditioning system. Josh Rohrscheib, co-president of the Illinois Student Senate, has cited the estimated $14 million costs of installation as well as the $500,000 operating cost every year as excessive.

    Rohrscheib said his biggest concern is that the University would pass on the costs to the University students- who pay $179 per semester in fees for maintenance of various campus facilities. About $35 of that semester fee was allocated for the Assembly Hall in the 2002-2003 school year.

    Barton conceded that the air conditioning system would most likely be used about four or five times during a regular school year. And Kent Brown, spokesperson for the athletics department, said the department would not be affected by the availability of air conditioning, since the basketball season occurs in the winter, and the department does not need the arena for any other sport.

    But Ullestad said the lack of air conditioning has forced the facility to shut down during the summer months. He once turned away a concert that would have guaranteed $500,000 up front because it would have been scheduled in late May – when the arena begins to swelter under the searing sun.

    “It can warm up in here,” Ullestad said. “I’m real hesitant on doing real large programming (during the summer months). You don’t want to spend 50-60 bucks to sweat.”

    “Would (Assembly Hall) suddenly become a major touring location in the summer (if we had air conditioning)? I doubt it. But it would make things more pleasant. If you’re going to do a renovation, it definitely makes sense to add air conditioning.”

    University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the initial planning phase will soon begin, but noted that it will take two to three years before a concrete plan could emerge for fundraising purposes because of the magnitude of the funds required. She said it is unrealistic to ask students to bear the brunt of the burden of such a large project.

    “I think it’s quite clear that this is something not to be done through student fees,” she said. “That’s something that is not a rational, reasonable approach, and it’s quite clear that we need external assistance.”

    Anjali Forber-Pratt, chairwoman of the Assembly Hall Advisory Committee, the University’s student-faculty board that advises the director of Assembly Hall on programming and other management issues, said it was important to note that the athletics department already gets booking priority at the indoor venue. All non-basketball events are scheduled around the men’s and women’s games, she said.

    “DIA is still going to be very much involved in the renovation project,” Forber-Pratt said. “Historically, Assembly Hall and the DIA have worked together, and they’ll just continue to work together.”

    O’Brien said that there isn’t a unified voice in support of preserving and improving Assembly Hall because of the sheer diversity of the audiences that utilize the facility, but that it is in the community’s best interest to make sure the facility receives the necessary repairs and upgrades.

    “I hope (people) don’t take (Assembly Hall) for granted,” O’Brien said. “For a community of this size, something like the Assembly Hall is almost unheard of. Anybody who’s anyone has played here.”