BIDDEFORD — Looking out onto a nearby pond from the new residence hall at University of New England, Alan Thibeault, the director of campus planning, imagines students this winter sitting on the stone wall lacing up their ice skates.
He believes residents will take the ergonomic chairs from their rooms to the lounge on the first floor to watch Monday Night Football together, and he can already see students zipping to class on their bikes through the new tunnel underneath Route 9.
Since its inception about a year and a half ago, UNE’s master plan to create a more residential campus has been Thibeault’s major concern.
Sokokis Hall, the new 300-bed suite-style residence hall, isn’t your grandma’s dormitory. A fitness center is outfitted with equipment featuring personal televisions.
Washers and dryers are hooked up to an online system that tells students when their clothes are ready or if a washer has become available.
The hallways feature sconces and faux columns that give it the feel and look of a hotel rather than institutional housing.
The $24 million price tag was a steal, Thibeault said, as the project came in at about 25 percent less than expected thanks to competitive bidding affected by the recession.
A unique blue turf field was installed nearby mainly for the school’s lacrosse and field hockey teams.
The master plan also includes adding three more residence halls, a field house, additional parking lots and two more athletic fields, though a timeline for the construction is not yet in place.
The current project supported about 250 construction jobs, and UNE’s overall impact on the Maine economy will be $560 million this year, according to a recent study by Market Decisions, a marketing and strategic planning firm in Portland.
The construction of Sokokis Hall, named after an American Indian tribe that once inhabited the region, began in October and will be completed when its first residents arrive in about a week. Sophomores will live in the four-story building, which has both single- and double-occupancy rooms.
The university requires that students live on campus for the first three years, which studies show builds community and is a link to academic success, said Cynthia Forrest, UNE’s dean of students.
For the last few years, campus housing has been overbooked, with double rooms being made into triples and about 120 students being released from the three-year residency requirement to make room for those who needed on-campus housing. Now there’s room for all students under the residency requirement to live on campus.
For the first time, all undergraduate students will begin their careers at UNE living at the Biddeford campus. In the past, dental hygiene and nursing students lived at the Portland campus.
“They’re going to be a part of the full university community,” Forrest said.
Hype surrounding the new residence hall began well before the walls were painted, with students clamoring to get in, Forrest said.
But not everyone was excited about the new building. A handful of neighbors living in the Hills Beach area were upset that roughly nine and a half acres of woodlands had to be razed.
With so many students faced with crossing Route 9 to get to class, sidewalks were added and the speed limit was lowered to 35 mph, a 5-mph reduction. Building a tunnel under the road disrupted traffic patterns, which also frustrated nearby residents.
“At first it did look like a war zone,” said Joanne Twomey, Biddeford’s mayor. “It was devastating when we rolled by and saw those trees cut.”
Nearly a dozen public meetings were held regarding the expansion, and Twomey thinks the school has done a good job of being inclusive and receptive.
The university set aside 170 acres of land in a conservation easement, and the facility is aiming for LEED Silver certification, the third-highest level of the four categories of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.
Twomey said she would have preferred for the area to remain wooded and have students bused downtown to live in the old mill buildings, using existing space and bringing more life to downtown.
“I support UNE and their right to expand on property they own,” said Peggy Ayers, a local resident and founder of the nearby Blandings Park Wildlife Sanctuary. “My feeling, though, as a conservationist and environmentalist, is of course there’s a quandary.”
The area surrounding UNE includes habitat for the endangered Blanding’s turtle and threatened spotted turtle, Ayers said. She understands development must happen and that UNE has been about as careful as it could be, but she still mourns the loss of the natural habitat.
Still, Twomey supports UNE in its endeavors and the economic potential it brings to the city.
“I think the university is a jewel in our community,” she said.
UNE is hosting an open house for the community to see the new facilities Aug. 25. Anyone is welcome, though they should call the university beforehand.
“I can’t wait to watch people’s faces when they walk in,” Forrest said.
Staff Writer Stephanie Hardiman can be contacted at 791-6301 or at: