An aerial rendering of USM's proposed new student center and residence hall in Portland. (Courtesy city of Portland)
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city planners want more information on what is being called a “transformational project” for the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. 

The project, which would alter the campus between Deering and Forest avenues and create housing for hundreds of students, is being heralded by university officials as a major economic boost not just for USM, but for the city. 

During the Aug. 11 Planning Board meeting, USM representatives presented their plans for a 60,000-square-foot student center on Bedford Street and a 220,000-square-foot, 577-bed residence hall mostly for upperclassmen, law students, and advanced-degree candidates.

The scene along Bedford Street at the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland could be dramatically different if the school receives permission to construct a new student center and residence hall. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

USM President Glenn Cummings said the dorm rooms would take some pressure off the city’s housing stock, help the university retain in-state students who want to be in Portland, and attract potential out-of-state students.

“This is a major move forward,” Cummings said.

He said funding was approved in November 2018 in the form of a $49 million workforce bond that allowed $19 million for construction of the new student center and residence hall.

Cummings said it would be a “transformational project” for what is now a “commuter campus.”

He said the student center and residence hall would have about an acre of green space and a university quad that would be “the centerpiece of the campus,” and a venue for performances.

“We have one of the best small music programs in the country,” Cummings said. “We welcome the community to be part of those kinds of activities.”

Cummings and the architects involved in the project said the student center will have a 300-seat dining hall, as well as an adjacent brewpub. He said the goal isn’t to compete with restaurants in the area, and the hope is this will help spur further development along Forest Avenue of restaurants and retail shops.

“We believe Forest Avenue will be the next area of growth for the city, and students will take advantage of shops and restaurants that appear,” he said.

Alex Porteous, chief business officer for USM, said the project is part of the partnership between USM and the University of Maine system. He said the design of the proposal, known as Portland Commons, will be a strong addition to the surrounding neighborhood, and will hopefully become a resource for the city.

Porteous said the center will be built to passive house standards, which is a voluntary standard for energy efficiency that reduces a building’s overall ecological footprint. He said the completed student center and residence hall will be the largest passive house in New England, and one of the five largest in the United States.  

Porteous said there is a greater up-front cost to build to passive house standards, but it will pay off over time.

He said there will also be a space for students to conduct interviews, including remotely via Zoom.

“This building will fill a lot of needs for our students,” Porteous said. “Among other things, we have a lot of commuters who don’t have a lot of places to go on campus. And when we talk about recruitment and retention, this is big.”

One issue the proposal did not fully address is parking, which USM officials said would have to be finalized at a later date. Part of the project will require a new parking garage, which has not been designed.

Aaron Witham, USM director of sustainability, said parking on the Portland campus is sufficient to meet peak demand, with about 1,700 spaces. But he said some of those spaces will be lost to create green space in this project, and some will be lost due to the city’s construction of a roundabout adjacent to the campus.

Witham said a siting and feasibility study for a new garage has been done, and the new garage should have close to 500 parking spaces, bringing the total to around 2,000 on campus. He said the hope is the new residence hall will reduce the demand for parking, because fewer students will have to commute.

Some members of the public who spoke had concerns about the plan, particularly around traffic and a lack of neighborhood involvement in the planning. Kevin Fitzgerald said the university’s plans for parking and traffic flow were “dismissive” of the neighborhood.

Planning Board members expressed some initial concerns about the aesthetics of things like windows, and functionality of bike storage. They indicated they would like to have a second workshop before moving on to a public hearing, despite USM’s desire to have the second workshop waived.