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Florida announces authorization of O'Connell Center renovation for 2016

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The O'Dome renovation is officially a go — again.

GatorZone

The long-awaited and previously delayed renovation of Florida's Stephen C. O'Connell Center is officially a go again, the school announced via GatorZone on Tuesday.

The Stephen C. O’Connell Center renovation project is officially a go as the University of Florida has inked construction authorization paperwork with contractor Brasfield & Gorrie, one of the nation’s largest privately held construction firms. The renovation of this iconic building is a unique partnership between UF and the University Athletic Association to help fund and manage the $64.5-million project.

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With the planning stages of the project complete, the building process is set to begin, as Tuesday marks pre-bid meetings with subcontractors and small businesses interested in working on the project along with Brasfield & Gorrie, Davis Architects and TLC Engineering.

The announcement is the latest step in a multi-year saga that dates back to June 2014, when Florida officially announced a much-discussed renovation to the aging O'Connell Center that would run from March to December 2015 at a cost of $45 million.

But that iteration of project bogged down when a contractor submitted a proposal well over Florida's projected budget, and in February 2015, the school announced it would postpone the renovations for a year, also bringing in a new construction manager. That new team would eventually be Brasfield & Gorrie, an Birmingham-based firm responsible for the swift construction of Florida's indoor practice facility for football, and it would replace Gainesville construction stalwart Charles Perry Partners Inc. after Florida and CPPI squabbled over the ballooning budget.

As recently as June, Florida was still negotiating with Brasfield & Gorrie about the project's budget, with Florida's University Athletic Association putting up $50 million and the University of Florida adding another $10 million. Tuesday's announcement, though, puts the estimated cost of the project at $64.5 million — a figure higher than the reported $63.4 million budget from CPPI that Florida balked at earlier this year.

What will that money buy the Gators?

The scope of the renovation includes a seating bowl update, the addition of premium seating areas, installation of a state-of-the-art center-hung scoreboard, upgrades to team spaces and an enhanced concourse to improve the fan experience.

That sounds similar to what was announced in 2014, with the omission of "a splashy main entrance that will serve as an open circulation area and house ticketing and retail sales areas." But while a more spectacular atrium was part of the renderings leaked by a failed bidder for the project last July, the four renderings Florida includes in Tuesday's announcement of the project's restart do include interior and exterior views of a "new grand entrance" combining Gates 1 and 2 into a single portal for the facility facing east toward Gale Lemerand Drive.

Florida's announcement also sets an end date for construction: "The renovation is scheduled to be completed in time for UF's Fall semester commencement in December 2016." The start date is a little fuzzier, though, with "portions" of construction beginning "as early as October" and the facility remaining "fully operational until the massive overhaul begins in Spring 2016." The additional preliminary construction could be a substantial factor in making the project successful, as experts and laypeople alike have expressed skepticism about the feasibility of cramming a full-fledged renovation into nine months.

As for events affected during the renovation, Florida says its Spring 2016 commencement ceremonies will be held in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, with Summer 2016 commencement shifting to the Phillips Center. Florida's volleyball program will hold home matches at Santa Fe College, while the men's and women's basketball teams will play "home" games in and around the state of Florida. The Gators' swimming and diving program and three-time defending national champion gymnastics team should not be signficantly impacted by the renovation.

One major question, that of whether a renovation will alter (and likely decrease) the capacity or layout of the facility, remains unanswered. Florida's announcement includes this brilliantly evasive bit on potential changes to seating, which manages to include a flat "Yes" and still confuse.

Q: Will seating at men's basketball be impacted?
A: Yes. Seating will be impacted to some degree with the removal of smaller, bleacher seating and addition of larger, chair back seating in all of level one. The seating plan for the renovation has not been finalized yet, so the impact of seating changes is not specifically known. Once we learn about the specific seating changes to the O'Connell Center and have finalized a seating plan, we will alert our fans of such changes.

Conventional wisdom has held that Florida would likely reduce seating in the occasionally cavernous O'Dome from its current capacity of 11,548 to a number closer to 10,000, and athletic director Jeremy Foley and others have made mention of a desire to keep the Rowdy Reptiles student section close to the court, but what actually happens obviously remains to be seen.

Regardless of the troubled timeline of the O'Dome renovation, however, the project remains a vital part of keeping Florida's athletic facilities up to the standards of other great institutions in college sports, and a second official go-ahead suggests that the program finally has a plan it feels secure in announcing.

Let's hope that means it is also one that will come to fruition.