University of Minnesota athletics take a quantum competitive leap forward with the new Athletes Village

By John Reinan

Athletes Village at the University of Minnesota features two dominant views: TCF Bank Stadium to the east and the downtown Minneapolis skyline to the west. One points to the present, the other to the future.

This $166 million complex in the heart of Dinkytown was created to serve University of Minnesota athletes during their college careers, as well as prepare them for their professional careers after graduation. The new facility is being called one of the best in the nation.

“When you have visiting players from powerhouse athletics programs complimenting Minnesota, you know you’ve done something right,” says Greg Fenton, AIA, principal and senior vice president at St. Paul–based BWBR, the project’s architect of record.

“The first thing we always talk about when we’re talking with student athletes, whether they’re already here or we’re recruiting them, is that we want to provide a world-class experience,” says University of Minnesota head football coach P.J. Fleck. “Athletes Village and the David and Janis Larson Football Performance Center do all of that, and that is what makes this place really special. This isn’t just an athletic complex or a football complex—this is a life complex.”

As the university strives to build a highly ranked athletics program, Athletes Village is a key recruiting tool, especially in the big-money sports of football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball. “You look at other universities around the country and see how they are escalating their efforts to attract Division I athletes. I think the U saw the need to be more competitive,” says Tom Whitlock, president of Minneapolis landscape-architecture firm Damon Farber, which handled site planning and improvements throughout the village district.

Scott Ellison, the U’s associate athletics director for facilities and capital projects, smiles as he recalls the Athletes Village tour he gave to a Texas gymnastics recruit and her father. “I could tell the father was getting more and more despondent, because his daughter was getting more and more excited about coming to Minnesota,” he says. “She was dazzled.”

Recruits aren’t the only ones dazzled by the village. “We had the Big Ten facility managers conference here this year,” Ellison adds. “They loved it. They loved how compact and how close to everything it is.”

With 337,400 square feet of new construction, Athletes Village brings together practice spaces, weight training, medical care, nutrition, academics, and recreation in a compact site designed to foster camaraderie among players. “We were trying to reinforce the sense of community among the athletes,” says Al Oberlander, AIA, a principal with the Des Moines office of RDG Planning & Design, the associate architect on the project. “It becomes kind of the living room that brings all the athletes together.”

The architects also took pains to integrate the complex with the campus, creating a highly visible entrance on a busy Dinkytown street, along with a public plaza that can be used by students and fans. The entry plaza’s signature piece is “Minnesota” spelled out in giant precast-concrete gold letters.

“We were looking for that Instagram moment for recruits,” says Sam Nolden, the village’s director of operations. “You need to have features that will appeal to visiting 16- and 17-year-olds.”

The tight site, bounded by city streets and crisscrossed with railroad tracks, utility corridors, and easements, presented a challenge that BWBR and RDG solved by going vertical. Athletic complexes at other major universities tend to be low, sprawling structures of one or two stories, often located far from the campus center. Athletes Village ascends to six stories at its highest point, and it includes an unusual stacking of the men’s and women’s basketball spaces.

Even with the vertical planning, distances between athletic activities are short. “It’s pretty condensed, but a lot of thought went into connecting everything,” says Whitlock.

The verticality also heightens the visual link to the downtown Minneapolis skyline, a soaring symbol of the corporate strength of the Twin Cities. “The siting and the views were purposely focused toward downtown Minneapolis to show what these athletes might experience after graduation,” says BWBR’s Fenton. “They use the phrase ‘backpack to briefcase.’”

In the Land O’ Lakes Center for Excellence, where that view is at its best, student athletes can connect to employment opportunities through seminars, CEO appearances, and career counseling. In the lobby of the sixth-floor Leadership Center is a touch screen listing all the Fortune 500 companies with a Twin Cities presence. Each company listing includes a roster of U student-athlete alumni working at the firm.

“Only two percent of Division I athletes will play professionally in their chosen sports,” notes the U’s Ellison. For the rest, the building’s focus on academics and corporate networking gives them ample opportunity to succeed in their educational and professional pursuits. The new facility has 34 tutoring rooms, for example; previously, the athletics department offered only seven.

Although the village is primarily used by athletes, it features many public spaces. In addition to the plaza, which is open to all, walkways lead through the village to Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, the U’s softball facility; Siebert Field, home of the Gophers baseball team; and the track-and-field stadium. The massive lobby is used for public events, and all U students, as well as members of the public, can dine in the nutrition center, which features an omelet bar, a panini bar, and grill and pasta stations.

Energy and environmental measures include solar panels and LED lighting throughout the complex. The project’s tight site and complex programming required an innovative stormwater-retention plan that put some of the largest tanks in the area underneath the football practice facility.

The interior finishes are Minnesota Nice, says Nolden: “It’s well planned, functional, and beautiful, but it’s not over the top.” The design team sourced materials and furnishings from local vendors where possible, and thus the facility features Cold Spring granite, Sage electrochromatic glass, and Wenger lockers.

Ellison says Athletes Village is the project he’s most proud of in his more than 30 years in the U’s athletics department. “It’s got a wow factor,” he says, “and it benefits so many students.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: University of Minnesota
Architect of record: BWBR
Principal-in-charge: Greg Fenton, AIA
Project lead designer: Daniel Treinen, AIA
Associate architect: RDG Planning & Design
Experiential design: Advent
Energy modeling: The Weidt Group
Landscape architect: Damon Farber
Construction manager: Mortenson Construction
Size: 337,400 square feet
Cost: $166 million
Completion: January 2018
Photographer: Brandon Stengel, Assoc. AIA