By Chris Camire
LOWELL -- A dirt floor and concrete foundation stand where the fitness center, study rooms and lounges will one day be.
Come next year, the Marginal Street site will be home to a new, $42 million dormitory that more than 500 UMass Lowell students will call home.
The project's developer is promising big things for the South Campus facility, which will offer the university's only on-campus suites.
"It's going to be the nicest dormitory there will ever be on campus," Jim McClutchy, manager of Soho Development, said during a visit to the construction site yesterday.
Contemporary-style apartment living at UMass Lowell almost didn't happen.
In May 2010, the state Supreme Judicial Court dealt a major blow to the university's attempt to lease the new dormitory when it ruled that the school's lease agreement with the developer violated the state's competitive-bidding laws.
Soho Development, also known as Brasi Development, owns 4 acres adjacent to a university-owned parking lot where the new dorm will be located. Soho purchased the site, which was formerly occupied by Sullivan Brothers Printing, in 2005.
University officials signed a contract with Soho in August 2008 under which the developer would construct the dorm and then lease the building back to the university for 15 to 30 years.
After receiving a complaint from one of the losing bidders, Attorney General Martha Coakley sought to have the contract voided because she said it violated the state's competitive-bidding laws by trying to lease the building despite having complete control over the construction project.
UMass Lowell ultimately terminated its lease agreement with the contractor due to Coakley's ruling. Soho, having already invested nearly $5 million in the dormitory project, challenged Coakley's ruling in court, but lost.
The project was revived last year, however, when Lowell's Statehouse delegation inserted a line item in a $325 million midyear spending bill allowing UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan to enter into a lease agreement for the dormitory. The project was back on once Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill.
McClutchy, who is middle-aged, jokes that the turmoil surrounding the dormitory has caused him to age prematurely.
"I'm really 30 years old," he said, smiling.
Meehan has said UMass Lowell will need about 1,000 to 1,500 new beds by the 2015 academic year, as the university moves away from being a commuter school. In recent years, the university has had to turn down students who wanted to live on campus.
Plans are in the works to add nearly 1,200 beds to UMass Lowell's housing stock, including two new dormitories on East Campus in addition to the new South Campus apartment building. On Aiken Street, plans call for a new, $50 million, 490-bed dorm in the shadow of LeLacheur Park.
University officials have cited studies that show students who live on campus are more likely to engage in student-life activities, have academic success, and maintain a relationship with the school after graduation.
Meehan has also said the apartment-style rooms will appeal to international students who prefer housing that includes a full kitchen.
Although the six-story, 173,000-square-foot dormitory does not directly abut South Campus's academic buildings, the dormitory will feature a tunnel that connects to an elevator and stair tower that let out at a large university-owned parking lot off Broadway Street.
The dormitory's suites will feature either two or three double-occupancy bedrooms, a kitchen and a common area. The two-bedroom suites will have one full bathroom, while the three-bedroom suites will have two full bathrooms.
UMass Lowell will lease the building from Soho Development. The project is expected to create about 400 jobs during construction and generate $250,000 in annual tax revenue for the city once it is completed, McClutchy said.
"It's good for the city, especially because it keeps it on the tax rolls," he said.