The city is hoping to improve traffic flow with Deering’s Corner Roundabout at the intersection of Brighton Avenue, Deering Avenue and Falmouth Street, next to the University of Southern Maine’s Portland Campus. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

A 580-bed residence hall offering students affordable housing. A career and student center with sustainable features such as solar panels and cross-laminated timber. A grassy quad providing a natural gathering place. New arts and graduate centers.

Those are some of the changes coming to the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, where major construction is now underway on the $100 million dorm and student center project.

Work on the Portland Commons Residence Hall – which will be the first university residence hall on USM’s Portland campus – started this spring and is expected to be completed or substantially completed by June 2023. Also coming are a three-story, 42,000-square foot Career & Student Success Center and a one-acre campus quad.

“When completed the three projects will transform USM’s Portland campus and the city’s skyline,” said USM President Glenn Cummings at a virtual groundbreaking last month.

The projects also come amid other changes that will affect life in the surrounding neighborhood, where some residents have expressed concerns about traffic and university plans to demolish a house on Bedford Street. Last month, the University of Maine System Board of Trustees approved a move for the University of Maine School of Law out of its current building at 246 Deering Ave. to a temporary leased home on Fore Street.

Neighbors Mike Eling, left, and John Stevens, right, walk back to their homes last week through a hole in a broken fence that separates their properties from USM’s Portland campus. They are part of a group of neighbors concerned with some of USM’s plans for the campus. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In addition, the city is expecting to have substantially completed the new Deering’s Corner Roundabout at the intersection of Deering and Brighton Avenues and Falmouth Street – a project that is expected to help improve traffic operations and safety – by the end of August, though some work may continue through November.

The new Portland Commons dorm, approved by system trustees in February, is designed to use 50 percent less energy than a normal building built to code and is on track to be the second-largest university passive house building in the United States, according to USM. Passive house is a strict green building standard that prioritizes energy reductions and high indoor air quality.

Funding for the $72.8 million residence hall will come from UMaine System revenue bonds, and revenue generated by the residence hall will fund annual debt service payments. The building is expected to alleviate overcrowding in the dorms at the university’s Gorham campus as well as provide a source of affordable housing for students in Portland’s tight housing market.

The $26.6 million Career & Student Success Center will be funded in part with a $19 million state bond approved by voters in 2019 and will be constructed in the same general area as the residence hall in the space formerly occupied by the Woodbury Campus Center and 25 Bedford St. It will also provide space for diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

Both the dorm and student center are part of a master plan approved in 2019 that seeks to create a new “campus heart” around the quad and calls for other facilities investments, including a new Graduate Center for Professional Studies and Center for the Arts. The university is in the planning stages of work on the arts center and is expecting to announce a major gift related to the project this week. Planning is also underway on the graduate center, which will draw on funding from a $240 million gift made to the UMaine System last fall.

“I think the work we’re doing will be transformative to the campus,” said Alec Porteous, chief operating officer and chief business officer for USM. “Having residential housing on the campus for the first time in its history will really change it considerably and make it welcoming to our students, who really struggle to find affordable housing. Putting 580 beds on campus is really a game changer for us.”

PORTLAND, ME – JUNE 15: Construction is underway on the new dorm and student center at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland Campus. (Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer) Derek Davis

In a separate project, the university is planning to demolish a house at 118 Bedford St. this summer, a move that has raised concerns of neighbors on Chamberlain Avenue, which runs parallel to Bedford. John Stevens, whose backyard borders 118 Bedford St., and his next-door neighbors Mike and Cheryl Eling, said they found out a few weeks ago about the demolition plan.

“It just brings up things in our minds about, what are their plans for these houses?” said Mike Eling, 71, referring to several university-owned houses in the area.

Stevens said he would also like to have a better sense of the university’s long-term plans on the street after being notified about the demolition at 118 Bedford. He said he asked university officials about it on a recent neighborhood Zoom call.

“I said, ‘It seems like your plan was just let’s not spend any money on fixing up these houses, because it costs us money, but then when it comes to a point where they’re falling down, we can just tear them down,’ ” said Stevens, 41. “My question to them was, are you going to do that with all these other houses?”

The house at 118 Bedford St. is slated for demolition beginning in July because it needs significant structural repairs and lacks energy efficiency, said Dan Hartill, a USM spokesman, in an email. Once the building has been removed, the property will be open green space for the time being, he said.

It’s one of several houses the university occupies on Bedford St. that also include administrative offices, the student newspaper and a student and community radio station, WMPG. In addition, the university also owns five homes on Chamberlain and a sixth nearby on Deering Avenue, all of which are being leased through the nonprofit affordable housing provider Avesta Housing.

“The university is highly sensitive to living arrangements and regularly meets with residents,” Hartill said. He said the university is currently reviewing its options with the Bedford Street corridor and has no plans right now to expand parking into the space where 118 Bedford now exists.

Mark LaPointe, president of the Woodfords-Oakdale Neighborhood Association, said the association sympathizes with Stevens and the Elings. He said residents previously had concerns about a proposal to put additional parking near Falmouth Street, though the university has changed those plans and now expects to enter the permitting process for expanding the existing parking garage into the Wishcamper Center parking lot instead.

‘WITH MORE STUDENTS THERE WILL BE MORE CARS’

LaPointe also expressed concerns about traffic in the broader area following construction of the dorm and student center.

“It’s going to increase the number of students and with more students there will be more cars,” LaPointe said. “That’s always a problem. You like to have a residential neighborhood with people walking and kids playing but all these things are going to increase the number of cars in the neighborhood.”

USM is expecting most of the traffic impact from the student center and dorm to stay focused on Bedford Street and has been working with a traffic consultant through the planning, permitting and construction process.

An analysis from the consultant, VHB, suggested that in the short term traffic will decrease because dorm residents will offset what would have been commuters and travel will shift from mostly peak hour trips to off-peak trips. Traffic from the Career & Student Success Center, meanwhile, is expected to be comparable to the former student center.

As part of its traffic mitigation efforts, USM has set goals to reduce the number of university-generated trips during the local peak traffic hour by 3 to 6 percent by 2025, and to reduce demand for parking by 10 to 14 percent during the peak hour of demand on campus. The goals are part of a transportation demand management plan, the goals of which include reducing overall trips, demand for parking and greenhouse gas emissions.

On Chamberlain Avenue, residents said that despite their concerns about the demolition and future of the university-owned houses, they do see benefits to the dorm and student center project.

“(I do have) the usual concerns that would go along with that: traffic, late night noise,” Stevens said. “We were in college in dorms and I remember how that went. I think there’s that but at the same time they are making the school nicer and what they’re doing is they’re improving it, so that side of it is great.”

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